To accompany the new film series Man About Asia, The Drum is asking some of the region’s top marketers to share their local knowledge. Here Rob Hall, general manager of Open Thailand, offers advice on where marketers should base themselves in a region so vast, diverse and potentially overwhelming.
In my experience there has never been a formula for choosing the right opportunity in Asia, but I do think there are some fundamental guiding principles that can certainly help you make your decision. To be honest some of the best choices I’ve made were less through planning and more through fortunate happenstance. But I did have some guiding principles to help me along the way.
There are four basic things I think you need to consider:
The first really does start with your own experience and skill set. My first move to Asia was to Tokyo to work in the international marketing department of a major Japanese company. I had a real desire to work in Japan – along with mid-level Japanese language proficiency and a degree in business. And I needed that background because, despite having other expats in my team, much of the working day was spent speaking Japanese with colleagues in the office.
So the starting point is your skill set and seniority. If you are junior or mid-level management and want to work in a specific market, you will probably need the right language skills or a very specific skill set to get a position. Long gone are the days that an expat can walk into a job in Asia – and for good reason. Local skills and knowledge are a key to success, and local capability needs to be encouraged. At a more senior level you can get away with just having a specific skill set in demand. But even this is changing.
Closely aligned with your skill set is the market you want to focus on. If you want work as an expat in places like Japan, Korea or India for example, then these are very specific markets that have their own way of working. To a large extent this is true of China as well. Even working for a multi-national in these markets often means adapting to a very specific working style and culture.
In the case of China, it is actually more like adapting to 20 different markets. The opportunities are there, but if you go there at a mid-management level you will probably need good language skills, and at a senior management level you’ll need to adapt to working with a local team.
Specific markets have specific challenges – but they also offer enormously rewarding learning experiences. Many people who choose to work in these markets can become experts in this area because of this accumulated expertise.
Others may choose to have a more regional focus – often in South East Asia. In this case a job may entail working in one or several markets that includes Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam or the Philippines. If you are at a senior level you will probably get away with lesser language skills, but the challenge will be more about adapting to quite different market conditions between these countries. A regional role will require a broader set of skills that can be tailored to circumstances. But local knowledge and working on the ground with local teams and partners is still the key to success.
The third point is the level of market development you want to work in for your role. Working in Tokyo is vastly different from working in Manila, which is different again from Hong Kong. Some people thrive on only working in developed markets like Singapore, whereas others want to the work in fast developing countries like Vietnam, where the future is still being shaped. Often this choice is also aligned with how well that economy is doing. If growth in China is leveling off in your field, is there something in Indonesia that may be of interest if that market is taking off? That's something worth considering.
The last, and certainly not the least, point to consider is deciding on the lifestyle that you want. I’ve said before that while work may be the reason you choose to move somewhere, the quality of life is often the reason you stay. The people, culture and human connections you make are ultimately what makes a certain place special. And work life is always better if it’s also in a place where you really want to live.
Best of luck, and have fun.
Read more about setting up in Asia: Three marketers share their inside knowledge