ASIAN AGENCIES: THE EVOLVING MARKETPLACE

Asia's advertising and media industries are evolving at incredible pace. Camilla Palmer talks to clients to find out how they keep up.

If you thought life in New York or London was frenetic, then perhaps a stint in an Asia-Pacific hotspot such as Singapore or Hong Kong will set you straight. While the media landscape has changed hugely in Europe and the US, it's nothing to what's happened to agencies, clients and consumers in Asia-Pacific, according to the people who work there.

As well as enormous political changes, with sophisticated Hong Kong being absorbed back into China six years ago, holding-company merger and acquisition activity has both unsettled and stabilised the agency scene. The growing savviness of a new breed of consumers means clients and their brands, as well as their creative and media partners, have been forced to speed up their activities, predict trends and stay ahead of change.

McDonald's vice-president of marketing for Northern Asia, Giorgio Minardi, has had first-hand experience of this during his seven years with the fast-food giant. "Merger and acquisition activity took our agencies' eyes off the ball and we've also suffered from talent migrating away from areas such as Hong Kong. However, we are beginning to see a return to stability now," he says.

But San Chan, the regional marketing manager for Asia and Japan for the Australian Tourist Commission, says agencies are actually benefiting from an influx of clients who have agency backgrounds, fostering greater understanding between the two camps. "Ten years ago, most marketing managers were from operational backgrounds, relying on agencies to do their thinking for them. Now we have more ad professionals working client-side and they lead the trend for better communication channels," she says.

Most clients agree the relationships they have with their above-the-line and media agencies has never been stronger, whether they favour a 360-degree option from a network or cherry-pick the best local independent agencies for their brand. Minardi says McDonalds' two roster networks in the region, Leo Burnett and DDB Needham, have reacted well to the challenges of the region: "They're part of our team and vital to our strategy, particularly in new markets."

American Express' vice-president for marketing and business development, David Cronin, says Ogilvy & Mather, the brand's global agency, has completely changed its structure to be in tune with AmEx's work patterns and claims it is crucial to the way the business will expand into new markets such as China. "Strategy is the most important thing we ask from our agencies. Ten years ago, you called your agency, briefed it, looked at the creative work and then made a decision. The process has become richer - it knows our business strategy and the direction we want to take and this can be communicated to consumers from the start, rather than being added on at the last minute. O&M has become an integral part of the company." In fact, he sees O&M as the eyes and ears in the region, responsible in some part for detecting new trends and opportunities.

While some organisations still favour a fully integrated approach, using one network to fulfil its creative, media planning and buying needs, others are tapping into a wealth of talented local agencies for specific needs.

Chan claims the influx of agency people now working as clients has paved their way: "We're less reliant on more traditional agencies now and using best-of-breed prevents an above-the-line bias that might not be right for the brand." As well as TBWA's local agencies, Chan uses the media independent OMD and a series of specialists. "It stops creative agencies falling into the trap of thinking that advertising is the only important aspect of marketing," she says.

Cronin recognises the benefits of local talent, but is happy to retain O&M. "We have a global perspective and want to work with a network that understands that. Using independents can add value, but at what cost? It is a trade-off, but we don't want to reinvent the wheel."

Just as the agency landscape has diversified, so have the ways in which clients are now engaging consumers with their brands. Online, SMS and experiential campaigns are all commonplace in some of the most technologically sophisticated regions, such as Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong, bolstered by more traditionally planned campaigns on TV, billboards and in the press, according to Levi's vice-president of marketing for Asia-Pacific, Steve Castledean. Levi's is now working more closely with consumers in the region via experiential agencies as well as Bartle Bogle Hegarty and the Australian agency Arnold Brandhouse. Its recent Women's 501 activity in Japan relied predominantly on field marketing and product trial. "You need to feel and touch a pair of jeans in order to want to buy them," he reasons.

Chan knows all about tailoring a media strategy for a particular market.

"It's a challenge, because we need to talk to both mature and immature markets, but this means we can develop some interesting strategies," she argues. Consumers in Singapore are entirely different, both economically and culturally, from those in a new market such as China, and this is reflected in a recent campaign that she and TBWA developed. "Chinese consumers want destination information in conventional forms such as TV and press. Singaporeans know the basics. It's about selling a lifestyle to them, and a geographical region to Chinese consumers."

Castledean thinks the most important change of the past ten years has been the amount of creative work that now comes from the region. "We used to adapt work from the UK or the US," he recalls. "That worked, because consumers aspired to the West. But now there's a confidence in the region that demands its consumers are represented in ads. The days when you could win a pitch with a global TV creative idea are now well and truly over."

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