Asia: A rough guide to Asian business etiquette

What you do with your business card can be a gross insult to your host and misreading body language is easily done. Robin Hicks offers some tips for working in Asia.

When Publicis made the final of the global Singapore Airlines pitch earlier this year, it was a genuine shock. Not just because the agency is a newcomer to Asia and Singapore Airlines is a conservative "local" client not known to take chances with outsiders. But because it had once broken a golden rule of engagement in Asia.

Never mind that it happened three years ago. When the network's former Asia-Pacific chairman Guillaume Levy-Lambert wrote an open letter to the Singapore Airlines chief executive in The Straits Times, inviting him to meet to "share some exciting and wonderful business ideas", it was a public embarrassment for the airline.

The letter suggested the airline was mistaken for working with Batey, its agency of 30 years. The boss of Asia's classiest brand lost face - in front of a national audience - and industry gossip suggests Publicis got so far this summer because the client wanted to raise its hopes, bleed its resources, then snatch the business away at the death.

The face issue regularly trips up the unwary in Asia. So does an attitude of knowing better, Mike Amour, the Asia-Pacific chairman of Grey, says: "If you come here to 'show them a thing or two', you won't last. Locals often regard expensive expats with suspicion."

Expats too often come across as overly domineering, even when they don't mean to be, Charles Wigley, the chairman of Bartle Bogle Hegarty Singapore, says: "Don't behave like a bull in a china shop. Talk less, listen more. You have to coax more out of people here. Asians are naturally less forthcoming (unless you're in India!)."

Business in Asia is built around relationships, Wigley says. "And relationships take time. A quick trip to 'fix' a relationship by someone the client is never likely to see again won't work."

This applies to creative standards. In the UK, the quality of the work will often dictate the quality of the relationship. "In Asia, the reverse is true," Wigley says. "And remember that classic UK advertising is the anomaly, not the norm," he adds. "The whole world is not in thrall to CDP's early output."


Conspiracy theorists reckon Singapore is an experiment to see if the West can live in peace with the Chinese. If true, it seems to be working. The squeaky-clean city-state has become a popular regional hub for Western agencies and clients.

Westernised and cosmopolitan it may be, but it's a common mistake to expect business as usual. The similarities are simply gift-wrapping, Dan Paris, the managing director of TBWA\Tequila Singapore, says. "The locals use the expression 'chicken and duck talk': you may speak the same language, but not understand one another."

Singapore's ethnic Chinese majority can be more traditional than their ancestors, and etiquette is key. "Business cards should be presented with two hands, preferably from a card wallet, not the wallet you've been sitting on," Kim Walker, the Asia president of M&C Saatchi, advises. "The card is a symbol of self-respect, not a toothpick or something with which to brush biscuit crumbs from the meeting table."

The city-state may have a reputation for its strange laws, such as those on chewing gum and failing to flush the toilet, but most are myths. "We laugh at our image of totalitarian strictness," Jeffrey Seah, the chief executive of MindShare Singapore, says. "We are a safe, clean, prosperous country in which you're not allowed to do things that, in truth, you really shouldn't."


Corruption and protectionism weigh heavily on Indonesia. But a population of 220 million and an ad economy growing at 15 per cent a year were good reasons for WPP's chief executive, Sir Martin Sorrell, to tip the country as a market to watch (along with Vietnam and Pakistan) when he jetted into Jakarta this summer.

Biofuels, tobacco and banking are making local companies appealing to agencies. But meetings with local clients can be tricky for Westerners, an agency head warns. "The chances are you'll be made to wait," he says. "It's a show of power. Don't look disgruntled - they won't apologise. Apologise that you don't speak Bahasa, and ask whether they mind speaking English. And go easy on the vocab. Too many Brits speak as they would back home. Indonesians will not let on that they don't understand. Ideally, have a local colleague with you to reiterate every point in Bahasa.

"Never give a business card with your left hand. It's considered extremely rude. And come prepared for the most uncensored nightlife in Asia," he adds, referring to a five-story Jakartan nightclub with a hotel on top called Stadium. It opens on Thursdays and doesn't close until Sunday afternoons.


Since the coup last year, Thailand has become a noticeably less smiley country. The economy has gone flat and Thailand's best creative agencies are losing people to better-paid industries. But Thais are reluctant to discuss the country's problems openly with foreigners. After all, here is a country that has never been colonised, a culture unchanged for 2,000 years and one not used to outside influences, Shilpa Swaroop, the chief operating officer of Grey Thailand, says.

Face is a big issue, as Alex Thompson, who moved there to run Kinetic Asia- Pacific, has discovered. "One of my staff wanted to resign to take a better job. But because he didn't want me to lose face, he made up a story about taking over his ailing father's toy-making factory," he says. "We then had a Python-esque debate on marketing toys in Southern Thailand. When the truth came out, I don't think either of us could have been more embarrassed."

Thailand is the most warm, ingratiating country imaginable, Andre Nair, the chief strategy officer of JWT Asia- Pacific, says. "But remember that even if your best friend is Thai, you speak the language or share a girlfriend, you will always be farang (foreigner)."


If Thailand is the toughest nut to crack culturally, then Japan, Asia's largest ad market, feels the most alien (closely followed by neighbouring Korea).

"Japan is dangerous because you instantly fall in love with it. The people, the food, everything is so wonderful," Daryl Arnold, the chief executive of Profero, says. "But you can get carried away and be blind to the issues."

The Japanese hate confrontation, which includes problems likely to cause embarrassment, he warns. "You could have a working relationship which is treading water and, before you know it, it's gone pear-shaped. If you don't deal with problems early on, the implications will quickly magnify, you will lose a lot of money and the Japanese will want you to walk away."

Japan is Asia's most extreme market for business-card etiquette, Michelle Kristula-Green, the Asia-Pacific president of Leo Burnett, says. "If you drop it on the floor and step on it, you're stepping on the person. It's hard to remember people's names, so line name cards in front of you in the order of the people you've met."

Rank is important, too. "When entertaining, the seat of honour should face the door, and the most senior seated in descending order of rank. In meetings, the people sat quietly at the back are most likely to be the bosses," she says.


Nowhere in Asia is in more of a hurry to develop than China. David Shaw is the Asia-Pacific brand marketing director at Lenovo, which stunned the West when it bought a chunk of IBM in 2004. He says: "Everything the West has gone through goes through a compressed cycle here. There is no place for the slow burn of building brand relationships. So don't be surprised if clients change agencies every few years."

China's progress has emboldened it. "Gone is the 'West is best' mentality. The Chinese don't think well of foreigners who believe they have something to teach them," Shu Fen Goh, the principal of the pitch intermediary R3, says.

And never talk politics. "The Chinese tend to talk about the good, not the bad - at least in public," Goh adds. "Don't think it's clever to bring up, say, the Mattel toys scandal, because they probably won't know you know about it. It will only cause embarrassment."

Business may be done at a loud volume, but humility and values always come first. Yan Gang, the boss of Citic, WPP's former joint venture partner, accused Sorrell of having "no manners, no upbringing and no culture", before severing ties last year.


Vietnam is the "new China". Intense, dynamic, optimistic, with an appetite for progress. It is one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia, and where the advertising industry is still young.

Sabyasachi Mishra, the managing director of Lowe Vietnam, has worked in India, Thailand and Vietnam. He notes: "The Vietnamese show a stronger desire to learn than any Asian culture. I've noticed locals working closely with foreigners have a slightly superior standing to those who are not."

He adds: "Vietnamese are inventive, tenacious and extremely hardworking. A campaign that would take eight months in the UK can be done in three here. But be careful with assertiveness. Don't push your point of view too hard, especially to local clients. Passion is seen as pushiness."

A lot happens in pitches in Vietnam that goes beyond verbal communication. "Watch out for body language and how the locals interact with one another," Mishra notes. "Smiles and nodding don't necessarily signal approval."

And eagerness to learn is one thing. "But if you think you have real sway over the locals, you'll be mistaken," he concludes. "Vietnamese agencies have very high staff turnover rates. There's no sense in giving people a reason to leave by being a bully."


There is a palpable swagger about the streets of Mumbai as the world's largest democracy grows in stature. The ad market is booming, talent is no longer inexpensive and property prices would frighten a Londoner.

Business is done in a similar fashion to the UK: direct and straightforward. But not as fast, Sam Balsara, the chairman of Madison Communications, notes. "We are yet to fully understand the value of time. If you have an appointment for 10.00, don't be surprised if it becomes 10.30. Payment deadlines are not treated as sacrosanct - a few days or weeks here or there, no big deal. But we are hardworking and will deliver, no matter what."

Kristula-Green adds: "Indians are smart and like to show how smart they are. Things rarely happen without adequate discussion and intellectualisation of the issues."

This means meetings are often long affairs, sometimes without conclusion. "Don't expect instructions to be followed religiously," Balsara says. "To win favour, you must appeal to our hearts as well as our minds."