ASIA: GOING NATIVE - As the region recovers from economic disaster, Western agencies are realising that to succeed they must think more Asian than the Asians

Now that financial analysts have officially declared Asia’s economic turmoil over - at least for now - the advertising industry is focusing its attention on where and how to develop business. As they strive to highlight their points of difference to potential clients, several expatriate agency networks are beginning to refer to themselves as ’Asian’. Embodied in this positioning is the ’think global, act local’ premise that has also given rise to the latest piece of cringe-making jargon - ’glocalisation’.

Now that financial analysts have officially declared Asia’s

economic turmoil over - at least for now - the advertising industry is

focusing its attention on where and how to develop business. As they

strive to highlight their points of difference to potential clients,

several expatriate agency networks are beginning to refer to themselves

as ’Asian’. Embodied in this positioning is the ’think global, act

local’ premise that has also given rise to the latest piece of

cringe-making jargon - ’glocalisation’.



Miles Young, the regional chief executive officer of Ogilvy & Mather

Asia-Pacific, even goes so far as to proclaim that his agency ’will be

the most Asian of the networks’. But what is behind this imperative to

be Asian? And is it a realistic objective?



Young says it is driven by the fact that economic power is, for the

first time, centred in the East. Technological development and the

approach to spiritualism will also emanate from this part of the world,

he claims.



It may be a frightening concept to Westerners because it’s unknown and

unquantifiable, he adds, but if you can make it work for you, you have

hit what he calls ’the sweet spot’.



But what does ’being Asian’ mean? Accurate definitions are hard to come

by. Asia is hardly a useful geographic reference, covering 14 culturally

idiosyncratic countries and more than 1,000 languages. The region

stretches from India to greater China and South Korea, down through

Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. Separated variously into north and

south-east Asia, depending on an organisation’s key countries of

economic interest, the region may include Malaysia, Singapore, the

Philippines, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand. Japan, for reasons of

history and because of its unique economic position, is also included,

albeit as a standalone market.



When it comes to culture, style, fashion, religion, food, language,

climate, physiognomy - or, indeed, the quality and style of advertising

produced throughout the region - ’being Asian’ is generally agreed to be

a non-term.



’To describe oneself as being Asian is necessary as a counterpoint to

being overtly Western,’ Steve Gatfield, the regional chief executive

officer of Leo Burnett Asia-Pacific, says. He believes such a statement

is as much about ’what one is not’ and he also thinks it makes unspoken

reference to past corporate behaviour among multinational agency

groups.



The truth is that to a certain extent the last signs of Western

colonialism are still working their way through organisational

structures in the East.



Most multinationals are operating from headquarters in the West and

there is still an inherent mistrust of overtly Western organisations.

Faced with the rise of China own-brands and the rapid development of

local independent agencies throughout the region, it’s an issue agencies

ignore at their peril.



The reputation of the multinationals has not been helped by the fact

that in the early years of international brand-building in Asia-Pacific,

the industry was often run by overpaid, B-grade expatriates who could

not cut it, according to Gatfield. He believes the cleanout of

under-talented expatriates may have been painful but was much

needed.



Yet understanding this need for change did not solve the problem. With

the economic crashes of 1997 and 1998, the response of the Western

corporations - the withdrawal of resources and brutal restructuring of

programmes - did nothing to improve relations. ’The West was deeply

involved in bursting the bubble in the East,’ says Gatfield who, during

his five-year tenure in the region, has witnessed the union of his

all-American shop with the quintessentially Japanese Dentsu.



Indigenous outfits benefited. Withdrawal of support from the West made

Hong Kong more self-reliant. It had no word to describe its nationals

until 1998 when the term ’Hongkongheise’ was acknowledged by the

government.



Now, as the fastest growing economic zone in the world, Asia presents a

very attractive proposition to Western companies - both agency and

client side - who are making bold moves and alliances to carve

themselves a slice of the Asian economic pie.



With the Burnetts/Dentsu and MacManus Group merger finally complete and

B COM3 duly announced, Burnetts is keen to project the union as

confirmation of B COM3’s East-meets-West business capabilities. The

point is not missed by the likes of Gatfield and Young, whose networks

have been operating in the Asia-Pacific region since the early part of

the last century, working for the corporate giants Unilever and Procter

& Gamble among others.



’The international landscape of the world is, increasingly, being led

from Asia,’ Young says. ’Our premise of 360-degree marketing means being

connected with the societies within which we operate. It’s important to

emphasise the difference between strong local offices and the rep

offices of the past. Getting closer to what matters within society in

Beijing, for example, creates a strong public affairs capability that is

taking us very close to government. Our perspective is as much informed

by China as by global happenings, which creates a unique offering to our

clients.’



The appointment of the Asian veteran Neil French to the position of

worldwide creative director at Ogilvy is one of many moves taken by the

agency to emphasise the importance of Asian acumen and experience. With

three Asian nationals - TB Song of Greater China, Kun Sananda of

Thailand and Ranjan Kapur, group managing director for O&M India - on

the worldwide board, Ogilvy may well have the right to claim to be the

most ’Asian’ of the networks.



The question is whether such moves - which although late in coming are

universally applauded - will eradicate the divide between homegrown

players and those from the West. Chris Harris, the chief executive

officer of Bartle Bogle Hegarty in Asia-Pacific, says: ’What we are

seeing now is a reflection of the fact that previously people did not

take the East into account. It was a cheap market for Western-originated

advertising.’



According to Harris, shifts in understanding should be positioned not as

a swing to the East, but as an intrinsic repositioning which will

eventually lead to brands and their agencies developing ’no country of

origin’ personalities.