What Marketing Looks Like 15,000 Kilometers From Home

I moved to Singapore in mid-2013 so that I could discover what it’s like to work and live in one of the world’s most dynamic regions. Singapore is quickly becoming one of the major advertising hubs of the world, catching up to New York and London as Asia rises in prominence and global brands shift focus to high-growth markets. As an agency CEO said to me, it used to be that New York and London dictated when the conference calls happened, meaning that the Singapore teams had to wait up until the early hours. Now Singapore is setting the call times.

While Singapore itself is relatively small, with a population of just 5.3 million, it’s an easy access point to the rest of Asia for global brands and agencies. The open economy and low tax rates attract foreign investment and expatriates, with turnaround times for an employment pass as fast as a couple weeks. English as the official language and the comfortable western lifestyle make it stress-free to acclimatize, although winterized Canadians might find the constant 31 C a challenge.

There are many similarities between Singapore and any major North American city, although it’s much more affluent than most. There are lavish shopping malls in abundance; attractions to lure international travelers to extend their stopovers; a world-class subway system. Consumers are surrounded by familiar brands – McDonalds, Starbucks, Nike, Samsung, GAP, Chanel – targeting every price point from mass market to ultra luxury. And, of course, the advertising industry players are largely the same: BBDO, Ogilvy & Mather, JWT, TBWA, Wunderman and so on.

Of course, it’s the differences that make relocating to Singapore worth it from a professional growth perspective. Marketing in Singapore rarely means targeting a local audience. Instead, a marketing plan could extend across the region, potentially reaching affluent, media-savvy audiences in markets like Taiwan and South Korea through to new consumers in emerging economies like Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

The scale of marketing is also staggering, particularly coming from Canada with a population of just under 35 million. China and India are well understood to be behemoths with populations at well over a billion each. But don’t forget the other countries that also offer huge potential for brands, like Indonesia with its population of 248 million or Thailand at a respectable 67 million. To put it in perspective, there are almost as many consumers with Facebook accounts in the Philippines as there are people in all of Canada.

Finally, working in Asia is an opportunity to see the mobile revolution unfold first hand. Singapore offers a microcosm of how mobile is impacting life across the region, cross-cutting every demographic. In the first of many “watching and walking” sightings, I saw a professionally dressed woman walk down the street, earbuds in, watching a television show on her smart phone held high in front of her face. I’ve also seen labourers flipping through Facebook on their phones while waiting for their evening ride home on the back of a pick-up truck. For the middle class, smartphones are their most important lifestyle accessory; for those closer to the poverty line, mobile opens up new world of content and communication. Now imagine how marketers are grappling with the issue of making brand messages relevant to audiences as diverse as these via mobile.

It's a half a year into my Asia adventure and I’m feeling fortunate to be on the front lines of a region in transition. And not missing the snow one bit.

Originally published on the Canadian Marketing Association web site on December 12, 2013.

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