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What can global marketers learn from South East Asia’s emerging markets?


By Shawn Lim, Reporter, Asia Pacific

October 21, 2020 | 6 min read

South East Asia's fast-growing markets offer new talent and lessons for marketers elsewhere. The region‘s top talent tells The Drum what the rest of the world is missing.


Time to get out of the hub bubble of Singapore, says the panel.

Speaking to The Drum during The Drum's Agency 4 Growth Festival, Prashant Kumar, the founder of Entropia in Malaysia, says that after Singapore, Malaysia has the second-highest penetration of smartphones, and almost any other digital behavior. He points out some of the first unicorns in South East Asia (SEA), such as Grab, were born in Malaysia.

However, in the agency world in the last five years, Kumar notes that half a dozen global agency networks have shut down local outposts or have transitioned from ownership to local affiliation models.

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, two global agency offices, one of which was BBDO Malaysia, shut down. He believes more will close in the next year because they have all been reduced to very small shops dependent on one or two clients, making them very risk-prone.

“It is not just a case on the agency side, on the media owner side, we have seen the largest media owners, such as Media Prima or Astro or Star, go through several rounds of downsizing. And some of them are going through the fourth round of downsizing.“

Kumar believes the marketing world at large is losing out on an opportunity – not just to market more effectively to the 650 million consumers of SEA, but to learn from creatives and marketers plying their trade in the region.

Local expertise or regional work?

Daniel Hagmeijer, managing director of Wunderman Thompson in Indonesia, says that while agencies and clients often believe strategic expertise should come from a global or regional hub, the reverse should be true. As the pandemic freezes travel and squeezes the marketing industry, the relevance of hubs, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, is being questioned.

Hagmeijer says that local teams need to be involved in both strategy and creative execution, because they understand local market needs best. Once a team knows what needs to be created for a client, it can be outsourced to other markets that have more expertise.

“Let‘s say for example you‘re going to be developing a new e-commerce portal on a Magento platform. I know that, for example, our India office has a lot more experience and strength within that and we already know that we‘re going to develop X, Y, Z,” he says, outlining how his ideal working relationship.

“We have the strategic initiative and then we can utilize their help in executing it so it‘s a perfect execution. It’s a little bit of a shift in thinking.”

The new ways of working

Shayne Madamba, the chief digital officer at Havas Philippines, explains Covid-19 has reinforced the parent organization‘s role in making sure its agency is up to speed on what is happening outside the Philippines. When Havas gets into a pitch in the Philippines, even if it is for a local pitch, it runs through strategies with counterparts in Singapore for key categories that it has a stronghold in other markets.

Three tips marketers can learn from SEA


People jump ship quite fast, so agencies have a hard time holding on to talent. Hagmeijer suggests “making sure that the people grow and have a growth plan. We have set that up for each of the people within our teams.“


In the Philippines, talent starts young. Madamba says: “I recently taught for a weekend at a university based in Cebu. They were asking me about Facebook re-marketing. A college student clarifying about Facebook re-marketing? I was blown away.”

Pushing limits

Kumar argues that marketers have to push the envelope to gain traction in an emerging market. He says: “If you don't take joy in the process of creating something original each time you get to work, then you are not going to last very long.”

Madamba says the practice helps the Philippines shop learn lessons – and from mistakes – that have been made elsewhere. It‘s a relationship that can enable the agency help its‘ clients budgets stretch farther amid the pandemic.

“We have a lot of businesses here in the Philippines apart from the multinationals, a lot of home-grown Filipino owned companies. In pharma, for example, we have global companies like Pfizer, but there are also a handful of local pharma companies who pave the way,” she says, noting that Havas‘ global expertise can help these smaller players hold their own against the giants.

“It‘s really a marriage of our local expertise; without failure of exposing them, we can pass on how other players in the global arena [operate], so they can leverage new communication elements.”

She adds: “How do we go forward after celebrity advertising? What's the next phase? Local expertise is a given, but whether it's an multinational or a big local client, we are able to grow their business, and learning from our regional and global counterparts will always be part of the conversation.”

Shayne Madamba, Prashant Kumar and Daniel Hagmeijer spoke with The Drum at Agencies4Growth Festival, a week-long online event celebrating the power of agencies to support businesses You can watch the interview in full here.

Sign up to watch forthcoming sessions and see the full Agencies4Growth schedule here.

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