Reflections by John Zeigler: Embracing Asia's future super-economies

In which the author gets a close look from an immigration officer, carries cases of cash, and survives to offer advice about what marketers and agencies must do next. 

In 1973, I had just received my driver’s license and a new sense of independence. Asia was a distant, exotic continent that I wanted to explore, so I jumped on a plane heading North (I’m from Australia) with Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore in my sights.

A couple of days before my trip I cut my long tresses—remember this was the ’70s, and I didn’t want to risk being turned away at the border. When I reached Singapore the immigration officer looked at the clean-shaven me, looked down at my passport photo, then looked at the clean-shaven me again. His face was expressionless, although I’m sure internally he was trying desperately to decipher what the hairless face in front of him looked like with a moustache. He finally waved me through, my heart skipped a beat and I was off on my big adventure.

And what a shock to the senses! Asia indeed was a sight to behold.

In Hong Kong I saw a stray dog get run over, strung upside down while still bleeding and then sold to the highest bidder. In Thailand my $1 bed and breakfast was next door to a drug bust. Two neighbouring police departments set up a sting only to start shooting at each other.

Four decades later and how things have changed. I’ve spent most of my working career in this region—18 years in fact, with 10 of those leading an agency network. At DDB we believe ‘creativity is the most powerful force in business’, and during my early years I did indeed have to find creative ways to run a business! Thank goodness the days of carrying cases of cash, to ensure invoices were processed through the accounts department, are far behind us.

Back then, I think we all knew that as a continent Asia would be an opportunity, however I don’t think anyone (except perhaps Lee Kwan Yew) would have predicted how successful and powerful this part of the world was to become.

Singapore is now my home, and since my first visit I now have a real appreciation of Asia’s diverse culture, so much so that I don’t think we should be trying to encapsulate nearly half the world’s population under one headline called ‘Asia’. Our challenge over the next decade should be to break down these barriers and embrace local markets and their cultures. It’s not the West conquering the East, it’s learn Mandarin, Vietnamese, Bahasa… whatever it takes to get under the skin of the future super-economies.

Young talent take note. The future, your future, is right here in one of the countries that make up the continent of Asia. We live in a region that is more social and digital than any other on the planet, putting these markets in good stead for reinventing multidiscipline, multidimensional marketing solutions that, frankly, Western marketers have been struggling with. I think many of us forget that consumerism and branding is 20 years new when compared to Europe and the Americas—so Asia presents many challenges as well as massive opportunities for local, home-grown brands and the talented citizens of these countries.

John Zeigler is the Chairman and CEO of DDB Group Asia Pacific, India and Japan.

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