Close-Up: Live Issue - Is working in Asia good for your CV?

Once a dumping ground for sub-standard talent, a stint in Asia is now a benefit.

To anyone who has been asleep for the past decade, there is no mistaking that Asia has become a magnet for advertising's finest.

Last week's announcement that Omnicom had named Proximity's chief executive, Chris Thomas, the new chairman and chief executive of BBDO Asia, follows a growing trend of successful agency heads migrating to the Far East.

After all, a successful stint in Asia can do wonders for your CV. Richard Pinder left his position as the managing director of Ogilvy & Mather to join Leo Burnett Asia-Pacific as its regional managing director in 2000. He returned to London two years later as Leo Burnett's president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

But it was not always like this. Historically, Asia was a dumping ground for the dregs of the ad industry. FILTH, an acronym meaning "Failed in London, Try Hong Kong", rang true for years.

Chris Clarke, the executive creative director at Nitro, who set up his network in China, explains: "Asia was never a focus for advertisers or agencies and, as such, never attracted the top talent. It is true the expats who came to Asia were the ones who could not get the top positions in London or the US and thus Asia got the below-average talent from Europe."

But Asia is no longer seen as an easy ride. As Maarten Albarda, who was based in Japan as Coca- Cola's vice-president, director of media and marketing assets for three years, puts it: "Asia redefines speed. It's fast. Very fast." The competition is intense, with some of the future leaders of global agencies at the helm. So why this change in the calibre of person heading East?

This can be summed up in a single word: money. Global advertising growth has been sustained by emerging markets such as India and China, which are supplying 27 per cent of the world's growth this year. Agencies will need to send their best people to compete.

What can working in Asia offer in terms of career enhancement? Expats generally learned little, particularly if they were unwilling to adapt to new ways of working. And London, not the Far East, is the place to be if you want to enhance your creative reputation.

But Ian Creasey, the worldwide president of Lowe Activation, who worked in Singapore as the regional president, believes it is necessary if you want to understand global brands. He says: "Marketers are increasingly recognising not only the opportunities in the size of the Asian market, but - perhaps much more fundamentally - the benefits from learning of the need in Asia to shape their global product and marketing offering to fit with local consumer attitudes and demands."

The emphasis in Asia is to be one step ahead of a rapidly changing environment.

Creasy says the market does this in innovative and creative ways: "It does it in terms of flexibility of action, speed of operation, the ability to overcome the paradox of managing huge scale with local touch in recognition of the very different cultures."

If people going to Asia have the openness to recognise and embrace Asia's contrasting colours, they will learn a lot. They will come back more open to ideas, better at building cross-cultural teams, better at leadership and better at creating genuinely integrated communication programmes.

Most important of all, they will understand advertising's key growth market.

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CREATIVE - Paul Grubb, regional executive creative director, Lowe Asia

"In Asia, you learn to think on your feet and bloody fast. You do the job of half-a-dozen people and get very stretched, so if you can't be decisive, you'll fail. You learn about many diverse cultures and how to navigate them, but the job of making ads is pretty much the same. The big experience is really day-to-day operational stuff: how to cope with a relentless barrage of problems, issues and deadlines.

"London does infinitely better work - it's easier to because it's a more developed marketplace with more enlightened clients. But Asia will catch up: what it took London 20-odd years to do, it will take Asia five or six. Don't underestimate it - it will be the biggest market on earth within ten years."

REGIONAL PRESIDENT - Richard Pinder, president, EMEA, Leo Burnett

"Only by living and working in the fastest-growing, most exciting part of the world can you truly understand what it takes to do business in Asia. The components of speed, aggression and genuine politeness are not often grouped in the West. In Asia, they are the norm. And, like it or not, this norm will one day replace our norm. Get used to it or get out of the way, as they say over there.

"If running a successful company requires the ability to provide visionary leadership to a disparate audience, to envision what could be, rather than what is, to make decisions for the long term, rather than just the short term, then Asia teaches you all of this in abundance."

CLIENT - Maarten Albarda, director of media and communication innovation, Coca-Cola

"China: hi-tech development and infrastructure. Taiwan: dedication and attention to detail. Malaysia: ground-breaking mobile technology.

Japan: low-cost manufacturing. Indonesia: the human backbone to the hi-tech industry. India: high finance and spending power, but also abject poverty for so many. China: anything as long as it is branded. Hong Kong: always on.

Singapore: service like they mean it. Thailand: dreams of a better live.

Vietnam: constant contradictions between traditions and the urge for the new."

HEADHUNTER - Gary Stolkin, managing partner, Stolkin + Partners

"There are plenty of ways in which a stint in Asia can enhance skills. First, Asian agencies tend to be ahead of those in London in delivering cohesive brand and communication leadership across the piece. And if you work in Shanghai, the media and culture exposes you to a new world driven by digital and branded content.

"Yes, you're more likely to enhance your creative reputation in London than Hong Kong, but whose experience wouldn't be enhanced by some time with Bartle Bogle Hegarty in Singapore or Shanghai? Ultimately, careers are built on agency brands, client brands and the work you have produced. Success in Asia can get you a top job in Europe or the US."


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