Between judging Ad Stars
, helping with a pitch in Sri Lanka and dashing off to the Seoul office of Dentsu Aegis, Ted Lim is a busy man. Since joining the holding company – the only Asian-headquartered global holding company – six years ago, he’s helped grow Dentsu’s presence in the region. Just a few years ago, most of Dentsu’s business came from Japan, and now in the region 50% of business comes from outside of Japan, in the shape of multinational and local accounts.
He currently works with 26 offices across 15 countries and right now the market that’s giving him both cause for excitement and concern is China. It’s economic and technological acceleration has left the rest of the world in the dust and for the world of marketing and communications (‘the industry formerly known as advertising’ as Ted likes to call it), there is so much to learn and absorb from the Middle Kingdom’s transformation in the boardroom and on the streets. On the other hand, political tensions with Hong Kong and the dragging trade war with the United States and Trump are sending out disruptive ripples that have consequences for businesses and jobs across the APAC region and across the world.
First, to the positives. “If business is allowed to carry on uninterrupted, I think that China will soon be the world’s biggest economy. If you step into the cities of Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen there is a buzz. There’s so much potential, not just for China but for the rest of the world,” says Ted, enthusiastically. “They’re the forerunners in 5G - which is scaring America - and Singles Day is the biggest e-commerce event on the planet.”
To illustrate just how deeply digital technology has transformed society, Ted recounts a surprising scene from a recent four-month stint in Beijing. While riding a taxi he passed a man begging at the side of the road – but instead of an upturned hat asking for change, this man was holding a cardboard sign bearing a QR code. Another man stopped, took out his phone and sent him some money over the ubiquitous local app WeChat.
“Even the street beggar uses e-commerce! I don’t see that in London, New York, Sydney or Singapore… it’s China!” exclaims Ted.
As networks attempt to carve out a business in the world of business consulting and ‘digital transformation’, Ted reckons international agencies should be fully mindful of what China has achieved so far and avoid any hubristically unhelpful pitches. “For any network to walk into China and say, ‘we’re here to transform your business digitally’, it would be strange,” he says. Instead, what he finds that Chinese brands are looking for is help appealing globally and engaging with audiences beyond China.
Of course, that expansive international ambition has hit something of a roadblock as trade tensions rumble on between China and the US.
“The Trade War has repercussions that are felt everywhere,” he says. “Clearly with the sanctions on China, if they can’t produce, they can’t buy to produce. It’s not like they are making everything with their own hands, they have to buy parts from other parts of the world to put together the iPhones to sell.”
Of course, this current impasse isn’t just a China problem – every part of the world is touched by political tensions and instabilities, which is in turn making businesses nervous. From Brexit to Brazil’s slash-and-burn approach to the Amazon and Trump’s stockmarket-rattling Twitter habit, the world is sizzling with flashpoints.
“There are tensions everywhere and clearly business prospers in times of stability. In times like this it is disrupted. It’s not just any country, it’s not just any industry, it’s everyone everywhere,” says Ted, who reflects ironically on the industry’s use of ‘disruption’ as a buzzword. “I think there is disruption in the sense of ‘digital business transformation’ which is good disruption because it moves our economy forward, moves our industry forward. Then there is bad disruption – it’s almost interruption and is driven a lot by politics. We could do better.”
As businesses brace themselves in the face of political and economic upheaval, Ted argues that it diverts resources away from addressing the looming challenges on the horizons, such as preserving the environment (which will be necessary for their own long term survival). “When business dries up, when jobs are lost… our energies could be focused on making cleaner cars, using things that are less damaging to the future and these are all business opportunities,” says Tim.
And perhaps some of that change will come from the ad industry. As Ted’s attention turns to the attention of the consultancies, not least Accenture’s spending spree, he finds a sense of hope in the developments. Their – very spendy – interest in creative marketing companies shows that while the industry may be undergoing a convulsive self-doubt, the consultancies still see the relevance and importance of creative companies.
“How one feels about it depends on how one sees it,” he says. “The fact that they are buying up creative agencies shows that there is value in creative agencies. One wouldn’t buy anything that has no value and the fact that they are splashing tonnes of money to buy The Monkeys and Droga5 and Rothco and what else shows that they see value in creative agencies.”
Ultimately, Ted’s a realistic optimist – he’s got a sober assessment of the state of the world and its impact on all industry. And yet he hopes that, as a planet, we can still turn a corner – that the division and tensions flaring up around the world are a temporary, irrational spasm.
“I think people will come to their senses when they start hurting. When they start hurting they will stop slashing their wrists. We will come to our senses. I still have some faith left in humanity.”