By guest columnist Mark Halliday, head of Airwave, Omnicom Media Group APAC
I write this on the eve of my one-year anniversary as head of Airwave at my agency. I came bounding over to Singapore 12 months ago full of optimism that I was moving to the single most interesting part of the world for mobile communications. I still genuinely think that’s the case but I’ve been surprised that mobile is not as developed as I thought it would have been.
Asia-Pacific has 56 percent of the world’s mobile phones, 52 percent of the world’s smartphones, and consumers spend more than two hours on mobile and tablet devices each day, yet media investment is painfully low on the medium people look at more than 150 times a day!
In the U.K., I would often cite Asia as being the most progressive continent when it came to mobile behaviors. I distinctly remember telling my clients how we were “five years behind Japan,” warning retail clients to be prepared for the mobile revolution – 10 million Japanese consumers buying goods via the mobile wallet every month can’t be wrong. Also, at least pre-iPhone, all the innovative mobile devices seemed to come out of Asia. (I absolutely loved my Sony Ericsson W800 and LG Chocolate!)
I arrived optimistic but nervous that there would be a lot to learn from mobile-mad Asian consumers. I was going to be living in a country with 148 percent mobile phone penetration. I thought I was one of the odd ones in London because I had two mobile phones but now I was moving to a country where the majority of people had two phones – would I have to get three to justify my position as a mobile professional?
The reality has been a little different but I’m seeing evolution every day. The most surprising thing about Asia, or at least Southeast Asia, is that marketers are noticeably more traditional in their approach. It’s genuinely surprising how small a slice of the media pie is carved out for digital, in this region. This is especially evident when looking at the number of digital specialists on the client side.
When I first arrived, I was surprised by the appetite for building apps and the flurry of questions on mobile trends. I received more app briefs in my first five weeks than I did in five years in London. It’s a theme that I have noticed throughout my first year and is one of the problems of working in such a rapidly evolving area like mobile – everybody is desperate to do the new shiny thing. There have been a number of false dawns with mobile but the medium is taking up more and more column inches, which in turn is putting pressure on our clients and planning teams to be seen to be innovative by constantly trying the new things, sometimes at the detriment of understanding what has been working and producing results. Brands are barely out of diapers when it comes to mobile, yet they’re trying to run before they can walk.
There are certainly parallels with brands from Europe and U.S. over the last five years – clients experimenting with mobile to get comfortable with a new medium, seeing the positive impact and then ramping up their spend. The key difference is that brands in Asia can benefit from more advanced technology and they have experts with years of experience to guide them on their mobile journeys. Even if they are running in diapers, there’s much less risk of falling over.
The incredibly positive thing is that there’s a real appetite for trying mobile formats. I cannot think of many of our clients that have not experimented with mobile, or who are not working toward, or implementing fully fledged mobile strategies. Spend is increasing quickly and brands are gaining more confidence with mobile technology – I’ve even seen the phrase “mobile-first” appear on a few briefs.
We are on the verge of very exciting times for mobile in APAC. The phenomenal uptake of social messaging apps; the meteoric rise in m-commerce sales in places like China; the growth in middle classes in huge countries like India and Indonesia; and the influx of cheaper smartphones all mean than we are embarking on an era with digital citizens who see mobile as the primary means of accessing the Internet. In the West, mobile communications developed out of the shadow of desktop expertise. In Asia, we have an opportunity to be the pioneers in mobile.
To persist with the maturity metaphor, we’re approaching our teenage years – some markets still have their childish innocence, while others are experimenting with new things, their voices are starting to break and what they have to say is challenging and progressive.
My advice to brands in this region would be to embrace the fact that many countries are now mobile-first. Digital strategies can (and in many cases should) place mobile at the heart of communications. If mobile is considered at the early stages of strategic planning, then our work and effectiveness will be much more powerful than trying to find a role for mobile in the overall mix.
We are beginning to realize the potential of mobile in this region and it really won’t be long before Asia becomes the mentor for the rest of the world in the art of mobile communications.