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Gordon Domlija on Leveraging China Experience to Unlock the Asia Market


Wavemaker APAC CEO Gordon Domlija on what lessons, experiences and successful cases have been learnt over the past two years

Gordon Domlija on Leveraging China Experience to Unlock the Asia Market

A new year has dawned upon us but Covid-19’s impact is still looming, with anxiety and concerns about the future. For marketers, they are eager to know what lessons, experiences or successful cases they could learn from over the past two years? What challenges are brands facing? What are the key marketing trends in the future?

Since Wavemaker’s 4th anniversary, the future-oriented and energetic young agency has achieved outstanding business results - winning a series of new clients such as IM Motors, Under Armour, Shunfeng, So, dive deeper into the behind the scenes of these achievements – What did Wavemaker do? What is its internal operation mechanism? What did it do to keep provoking growth for brands amidst the pandemic?

Driven by curiosity of these questions, Wavemaker conducted in-depth interview with Wavemaker APAC CEO Gordon Domlija, who was most recently awarded Campaign Asia’s Asia-Pacific Agency Head of the Year.

China is the successful pioneering market for APAC region

Compared to 2020, Wavemaker saw its business grow by 21%. In China, it grew by 19%. It is definitely a strong year for the agency.

In China, Wavemaker won new clients such as and Shunfeng. In APAC, Wavemaker won L'Oréal in India and Australia thanks to its strong track of record and strength in ecommerce. For the rest of the markets, it has won the media business of DoorDash - a food delivery service platform. Also, Wavemaker APAC recruited more than 1,000 new employees, injecting fresh blood to drive real digital transformation.

Food delivery service is common in China, but still blue ocean for the rest of Asia. In China, Wavemaker has had good cooperation with Meituan, which provided a strong reference for other markets, Gordon said.

“This means we are driving new business growth for these markets, and they are working hard to catch up with the pace of China. In Japan or the SEA region, DoorDash, Didi and Foodpanda are faced with fierce competition. I still remember when we started to work with Meituan years ago, the market is facing a similar situation at then,” Gordon recalled.

This is Gordon’s observation, as APAC leader of Wavemaker. Other APAC regions’ food delivery businesses’ statuses are similar to that of China four or five years ago, which he called phase 1 of Digital Transformation.

China is no doubt in the leading position of digitalization across the whole APAC region. The booming development of China’s social platforms such as Kuaishou, Tik Tok, Xiaohongshu plays a huge role in this. They are challenging the dominant position of traditional internet giants such as BAT. People could find resonance and a feeling of belonging at these new social platforms, like “homeland of spirit”. For minor interest groups, these platforms are also ideal places to develop networks with people sharing the same interest, hobby or way of communication. Platforms also became sticky for users as they mingle in the same language, in their preferred manners, about the content they are attracted to.

On the other hand, Gordon said clients show a certain level of conservativeness in the past year as the future is still uncertain. The good thing is brands have a deeper understanding of their roles – though Covid-19 is not over yet, life goes on. People still need to entertain and consume. Brands should respond in an active way.

“Most marketing activities are back to normal, but in other APAC markets that are still under severe impact of the pandemic, such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand, things are not that optimistic because of the lockdown.”

However, Gordon observed that ad investment has shown a sharp rising trend in the past 3 months – which means brands are now determined as they find new ways of growth. For example, there are plenty of opportunities in the pandemic-accelerated social media business and ecommerce business.

Wavemaker has been preparing itself a long time ago. It has built up its teams to strengthen its data and consumer insight related capabilities. By understanding consumers’ preferred way of communications, product preferences and points of activation, Wavemaker is able to respond to clients’ needs very quickly.

“We have a bunch of clients who are tech driven, who are in the ecommerce business themselves… this means for Wavemaker these capabilities are daily practice, not emergency measures for special circumstances.”

Propeller for Digital Transformation

The vibrancy of mature brands and start-ups in China is unlike any other place in the world.

Most global brands operate in a traditional way due to their longstanding history and heritage. Their growth comes from the capability for market expansions. They face a high entry barrier into the China market. Even after successfully opening stores and building up its supply chain… success is not promised for brands, and all could be disrupted very quickly.

“We are helping global brands to be connected to China’s social platforms, including marketing trends, tech innovations, consumers’ preferred way of communications, and their product expectations. Today’s consumers are extremely diversified. Brands must create content which are super relevant and, at the same time, personalised. More international brands are embracing new trends and trying out new models of working.”

Take Pernod Ricard as an example. In order to allow consumers to feel the brand’s history and charm, as well as to understand and enjoy its strong and rich heritage, brand experiences are required. That’s the reason why Pernod Ricard invested more on winery/distillery infrastructure and the communication of its brewing craftsmanship. This is also the long-term commitment from brand to China market – to educate consumers on how high-quality products are born, at the same time, to inform consumers what kind of quality they are paying for.

On the other hand, Pernod Ricard is also interacting with consumers in means that are appealing to them. It presented six major brands – Martell, The Glenlivet, Chivas Regal, Ballatine’s, Absolut and Havana Club – via the male idol show 'Call Me by Fire'. This is the first time Pernod Ricard co-presents its sub-brands appearing in the same campaign project and reach vast consumers via a popular show.

One notable observation is that international brands’ localization is inseparable from the big background of digital transformation. More and more brands are embracing digitalization. Accelerated by the pandemic, they started to ponder – if supply chains are disrupted, where could consumers buy products when traditional channels no longer function? How do products get delivered to consumers?

While ecommerce is hot in China, all “traditional” ecommerce businesses are facing the challenge of rising operation costs, resulting in the rising costs of customer recruitment. Thus, Gordon thought it is vital for brands to restore control of 1st party consumer data. Without a doubt, this will increase brand engagement, achieving high communication efficiency at lower cost.

This is also the direction Wavemaker is heading – under the framework of regulation, the agency is working with clients to better use 1st party data, build up communication channels, extract deeper insights and apply them into communication, creative strategy, content strategy and even product development strategy.

Positive Provocation, is not only about our job

Wavemaker had its first brand lift in 2020, launching a new brand attitude called Positive Provocation. How has it embodied in employees’ everyday work? Gordon has a deeper insight in the new year.

For him, Positive Provocation is a life philosophy, a vision, a way of working. It’s rooted in one’s interests and all things that could trigger one’s potential. It’s like a “permit” to challenge traditional ways of thinking. Everyone could have his/her own definition. There’s no standard answer.

“When clients come to us with questions, I encourage our people to re-define the question first. For example, how to achieve clients’ business goals? How to change consumer behaviour? The thinking process itself became solid foundation of the brand position and project landing at a later stage. I hope our people could really feel and experience the essence of ‘Positive Provocation’. It is not only about when you are working; it has its meaning in life in large.”

To help people better understand Positive Provocation, Wavemaker initiated a competition in the APAC region in 2021. First in Shanghai, the agency invited all its employees to tell their own stories and experience of Positive Provocation. All offices across the region had various sharing sessions, with people shooting videos telling their own stories and interpreting what is Positive Provocation for them.

“I think this is our company culture. A company’s attitude land with its people, and must work from bottom up. I don’t put up posters on office walls to tell people now we believe in this. This is not the right way for me. Be bold to ask questions, be brave to face challenges… this is the right way to see Positive Provocation,” Gordon shared.

Not long ago, Wavemaker and Zhihu invited people to co-create “A Curious Route”, inviting anyone who is curious enough to ask questions, thinking about the present and the future.

How do people see the future? What’s the answer given by the next generation? The project is not sales oriented, but to better prepare people for the future. All the wishes, expectations and concerns gathered during the project will be used in later practice.

Gordon is excited by the project – peeking into the future is very in line with our Positive Provocation attitude. In time to come, Wavemaker is to discern trend, provoke every possibility with a fearless attitude – the secret of growth we got a glimpse of from this interview with Gordon.

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Wavemaker Singapore, Wed, 16 Feb 2022 09:53:55 GMT