Last year as I was researching an article about Chinese internet giants that American digital leaders had better take notice of, I turned to Miranda Dimopoulos, a colleague, friend and most important regional CEO, IAB Southeast Asia and India Limited, for her insights. At the time, she told me, “My daily life in Singapore is led by Asian apps. Go-Jek to book a car to work, GrabFood for lunch for the team, PayLah to ping money to a friend, Taobao to buy a new coffee table via the Ezbuy platform for translation from Chinese, WeChat a colleague in Shanghai to confirm travel dates and book and pay for my flights within the app, order my groceries, raw dog food, and sassy ski gear from Lazada and catch up on regional news on South China Morning Post.” I found that response so intriguing, I knew I wanted to talk more to Miranda about the differences in digital experiences between East and West.
David Doty: Lay out for us at a high level the digital marketplace in Asia-Pacific. Most U.S.-based digital leaders naturally view the competition from the U.S. POV, but what are you, as one of the top thought leaders in digital in the Asia-Pacific arena, thinking they are missing?
Miranda Dimopoulos: The East and West have marketing and technology ecosystems that tend to exist independently of each other. In less than a decade the East has accelerated to dominate grassroots sharing, creative and technology economies that completely cater to the complex market diversities across the region.
If we look at the sharing economy alone, super apps are the perfect example; Asia-first, multi-utility based, single apps have exploded in recent years, eating the inferior competition and capturing audiences beyond the supposed Google/Facebook duopoly.
WeChat was the first super app to explode in China and we are now seeing others, such as the regional Grab app—which serves taxis, food delivery, laundry, tickets, OTT entertainment and more within a single environment—proving the model works in markets where Western social platforms also exist. Digging deeper into these apps, the first-party data being collected across multiple behaviors from a single consumer provides a rich audience data set that eclipses comparable Western assets. At the same time, you can understand a citizen’s location, preferences, intent, appetite for premium services, consumption and even how they relate to other users though payments—all of which contribute to a better understanding of citizens and therefore to fertile advertising opportunities.
“Asia-first, multi-utility based, single apps have exploded in recent years, eating the inferior competition and capturing audiences beyond the supposed Google/Facebook duopoly.”
So, the East is experiencing the swift convergence of AdTech and MarTech fueled by the breadth of these data sets, allowing emerging platforms such as super apps to be truly consumer-centric.
Doty: What do you think is the most important strength of the Asia-Pacific digital industry that sets it apart from the one in the U.S.?
Dimopoulos: Pace and volume. It’s taken the Asian digital economy a fraction of the time to exceed the decades-long U.S. journey, aided by rapid GDP shift in leading Asian economies such as China, India and Indonesia as well as the accelerated digitization of more than two-thirds of the world’s population. The East isn’t shackled by legacy structures and bureaucracy, and there is also rarely precedent, and all that is coupled with a lower aversion to risk and greater potential payoffs as a result. We continually see either new utilities or upgrades being released at basic beta stage to test intent and quickly identify breaking points and iterate with a function-first philosophy as opposed to prioritizing a polished veneer during development phases. I’d sum it up as talent plus acceleration minus legacy bureaucracy equals innovation.
“The phrase ‘seek first to understand, then to be understood’ has never had greater applicability than to the East.”
Doty: What do you think are the most underrated challenges that Western companies overlook before they go in, as they build businesses there?
Dimopoulos: The phrase “seek first to understand, then to be understood” has never had greater applicability than to the East. Whilst the top-level differences around culture and language are assumed, the greater complexities that have immediate impact on any Western business looking to move East are related to infrastructure, accessibility, relevance and true understanding of how to impact at scale. In the West you achieve scale by accessing a single market, such as the U.S., whereas in the East scale comes through your ability to deliver nuanced changes at pace across different regions based on highly varied points of access.
Doty: What ought digital companies, especially ones new to Asia-Pacific, take more seriously?
Dimopoulos: We can all learn from Amazon, PayPal and Uber whose initial forays into this region, particularly China and Southeast Asia (SEA), provided ample learnings—at the cost of significant time and money. Alibaba simply ate Amazon in China by providing essential local support from manufacturing through to connecting across the supply chain leading to a seamless connection between sellers and buyers.
Uber was acquired by Grab in SEA in 2018 after an initial first-place pole position that was lost quickly due to access and preference issues—for example, challenges in downloading the app in Indonesia due to bandwidth restrictions.
There is also a litany of FMCG brands that tried to bring U.S. propositions to life through cookie-cutter media strategies and basic translations before realizing how different Eastern markets are not only in terms of content consumption but also in terms of where and how they shop.
“Singles Day over the last few years has surpassed the transaction volume of Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined and delivered almost $31 billion in retail sales alone, demonstrating the scale and ripe opportunity of Eastern consumption. This is pace and scale at its finest.”
One example of this is Singles Day, which over the last few years has surpassed the transaction volume of Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined and delivered almost $31 billion in retail sales alone demonstrating the scale and ripe opportunity of Eastern consumption. This is pace and scale at its finest.
Doty: How do you see the next few years in terms of the rise of Asia as the central population center in the world and how will competition among the leaders, and emerging leaders, play out? What’s missing in Asia-Pacific that exists in the West and is ripe for taking advantage of?
“The most tantalizing developments from the West are related to how we manage and understand the concept of privacy as a human right. In the East, payments are the new frontier for engagement. The small fee earned per transaction isn’t the goal—it’s the deep understanding of financial intent, consumption and behaviors for profiling and predictions.”
Dimopoulos: The most tantalizing developments from the West are related to how we manage and understand the concept of privacy as a human right. Many Asian markets are only now beginning to grasp the concept and mechanics of privacy in a rapidly changing digital environment. The Western approach to privacy and identity has developed more cohesively in recent years, despite multiple perspectives and policies, within key markets.
Payments are the new frontier for engagement in the East with major players already offering utilities or looking into how they can leverage payments within their offerings. The small fee earned per transaction isn’t the goal—it’s the deep understanding of financial intent, consumption and behaviors for profiling and predictions. Investment in FinTech in Singapore quadrupled to U.S. $453 million in just the first half of 2019 as well as hosting some of the region’s top accelerators and start-up programs as well as innovation labs and a government active in accelerating the sector. Manila and Jakarta are also prized FinTech markets with big brands such as Alibaba, Tencent and Grab investing in these markets as well as developing strong local digital payment profiles.
In terms of identifying what platform is most likely to see dynamic growth in the next 5 years? It probably doesn’t exist yet.
Up until now the rise of Asia has been based on being insular and responding to its own opportunities. More and more, the East is looking East for innovation, inspiration and opportunity, as should the West.