Google’s Squared Online plays to digital talent shortages in Asia

The Hong Kong launch of the digital marketing course Squared Online comes as the Asia Pacific region addresses a digital talent shortage, experts say.

Based on the success of the program in the U.K., the 19-week, part-time, online course will start its first Asia intake in March 2016. Developed by third-party learning provider Floream in partnership with Google, Squared Online helps participants develop marketing strategies for the digital world.

Managing director of Google Hong Kong, Dominic Allon, says the APAC launch of Squared Online demonstrates the technology giant’s long-term commitment to the region.

“If you look at the next five billion people coming online, most of those will be in Asia. Yet, at the same time, the skills and capabilities in Asia are the weakest in the world,” Allon says. “The gap between demand and supply of digital talent in Asia is more acute than anywhere else in the world.”

Allon says the course is a response to the growing number of participants dialing in from Asia to access the course in Britain. Between now and 2020, Squared Online hopes to train 150,000 people through the program. 

APAC’s digital industry is booming – propelled in part, by the rising number of smartphone users. China, for example, has the world’s highest smartphone population at around 600 million. Experts from eMarketer predict that number will hit 700 million by 2018. That same year, India is expected to take second with 270 million smartphone users, followed by the U.S. at 220 million, and Indonesia in fourth with 103 million.



The region also leads in e-commerce with around 10 percent of all retail sales in APAC made through online channels. By 2019, eMarketer anticipates more than one-third of all retails sales in China alone will be digital.



However, a survey from 2014 by the Knowledge Engineers found that, while 80 percent of marketers in APAC felt “very motivated” to learn more about digital, just 33 percent felt “completely confident,” with the global average at 36 percent. Additionally, 20 percent of marketers in Asia-Pacific said they were “not very confident” in digital skills, compared to a global average at 15 percent.


* The Knowledge Engineers’ Digital Knowledge Survey 2014, findings for APAC

Adam Williams, managing director of the Nakama Group in Hong Kong, says digital maturity of talent in some areas for large scale corporations in Asia is as much as two to three years behind what’s happening in more advanced digital markets, such as the U.K. or the U.S., especially for data analytics and programmatic media.

“The businesses that are getting it right see this and have already begun their own internal transformation. They are changing their mindset regarding how to, first of all, source and attract the best digital talent, and then also how to develop and keep them engaged,” says Williams. “This usually starts with a clear digital strategy right from the top of the business itself. Unless that is already in place, the attraction for the best digital talent is likely to look greener elsewhere.”

Here are four areas challenging digital talent in the industry in Asia:

1. Siloed Training

Ariane Friesen, senior brand manager and digital champion Reckitt Benckiser, came to Hong Kong in 2013 expecting the region to be a digital frontier, and was surprised to find it actually wasn’t. She graduated from Google’s face-to-face digital marketing course, Squared, earlier this year, and says there is a huge pool of marketers in the region thirsty for digital knowledge.

“There isn’t much in Hong Kong [in terms of courses] bringing people together or talking about digital transformation or change. It’s being delivered in silos,” Friesen says. With a lack of case studies in the region, many in the digital industry are hesitant to make the first move, she adds. “This course teaches you to lose inhibitions that were stopping you from trialing things before.”


*An example of a group project – tracking the consumer journey – for the Squared Online program (

Friesen does not believe APAC has a skills shortage, but rather a talent shortage. People that are not well-rounded in digital will likely be siloed.

2. The well-rounded employee

“There is a big difference between being an evangelist for digital and having the technical skills and certifications to perform,” says David Ketchum, chairman for the Digital and Direct Marketing Association in Asia.

Ketchum says there are many individuals from digital working in-house with client companies or inside agencies to promote digital change or engage business development, but the real shortage is in people lacking in skills for:

  • Analytics
  • Search
  • Campaign planning
  • Marketing technologies

“A digital marketer without analytics is like a jockey with no horse; analytics are essential. A well-rounded digital employee should also understand search, programmatic, and social,” says Ketchum.


*APAC graduates of the face-to-face Squared program.

3. Fear of investing in the unknown

According to Ketchum, getting the rest of the business to invest in the people, process, content, and technology that might not yield tangible business benefits for many months even if it is essential to the medium in the long-term, is another challenge.

Ketchum believes businesses, which are locked into existing known and proven marketing programs, are also holding themselves back. “They either need to be cancelled and replaced by something unknown, or new incremental budgets need to be found to fund them. Both of these are difficult organizational tasks,” says Ketchum.

4. Change starts at the top

For this new mindset to occur, businesses need to be committed to digital transformation, but this change has to come from the top.

“Change has to come from the executive leadership, and a lot of them don’t have it [digital experience or knowledge] yet,” says Sean Seah, chief executive officer at APD Greater China.

A research paper by Thomson Reuters and APD in September found less than 10 percent of non-executive board directors in the top 20 listed companies of Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand had “deep technology experience.”

When the directors from telecommunication companies were removed from the list, that number sunk to less than five percent.



As more people in emerging markets across Asia are introduced to the Internet as mobile first and mobile only, businesses will need to undergo digital transformation to better understand how to reach them.  

David Ketchum believes there are two training types useful at this stage of digital business transformation:

1. Broad-based training: This will help mid-career managers catch up with the evolving platforms and technologies. More importantly, it will train them to think digital.

2. Specific technical training: This can plug gaps and open opportunities for companies. Most digital skills are not hard to learn, but they do require the right mindset and motivation, in order to commit the time to complete class assignments, online tutorials, and exercises. Dedication and focus will cure this problem, as a new generation of digital natives enter into the workforce, Ketchum says.

In the meantime, companies are importing talent from Australia, the U.K., and the U.S., in addition to upping their training offerings to employees.

*Squared and Squared Online are developed in partnership with Floream. Floream is primarily owned by Blenheim Chalcot, the owner of ClickZ.

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