Interview on

 Is Anybody Out There?

The New Blueprint for Marketing Communications in the 21st Century

By Mark Austin & Jim Aitchison

  1. Your new book Is Anybody Out There – The New Blueprint for Marketing Communications in the 21st Century has just been published by J. Wiley & Sons.  Both of you are very active in the Asian mass media advertising and brand management field.  What were you trying to achieve with this new book?

Answer:  We believe that time is running out for the marketing communications industry.  The marketing landscape has changed more in the past five years than in the past 50. Consumers have changed beyond recognition.  Their behaviour is more complex, their media habits are different, and they are more outspoken.  They have a different relationship with brands these days, relationships that are less tolerant, less “obedient”. 

Significantly too, mass media are no longer mass.  Communication channels are exploding and fragmenting.  Audiences are diminishing.  Audiences have more choices, more distractions than ever before.  Against these scenarios, we find conventional advertising agencies and marketing service companies — and many of their clients — in denial, their heads firmly buried in the sand.  So we wanted our book to be a wake-up call.  To draw a line in the sand between what “was” and what “is” the reality today.  The book calls for transformational change in the way marketers, agencies and media owners think, and it contains a blueprint for developing new kinds of marketing communications. If the message in our book was urgent when we started writing it 18 months ago, it is even more critical now.

  1. In the book you note that “the average job tenure of a marketing director in Britain has slipped to as little as 12 to 15 months, less in Asia”.  Is this a symptom or a cause of the breakdown in mass marketing that you look at in the book and what is the ultimate effect of such low job tenure on companies and brands, particularly in Asia?

Answer:  Especially in Asia, many companies (driven by the bean counters and purchasing officers) perceive marketing as a cost not an investment.  Marketing directors are expected to come on board and work miracles overnight, when all the evidence indicates that brand building is a long-term procedure, not a quick fix.  So marketing people are under more pressure, more stress, which in turn is communicated to their advertising agencies and other marketing services suppliers.
Ultimately, it is the brand that suffers.  Without a long-term strategy and vision, the brand will keep changing its direction every few months as each new marketing incumbent tries to put his or her stamp on it.  It leaves consumers confused.  Instead of the brand being a steady beacon on their radar screens, it becomes a wildly zigzagging dot.  Imagine, for example, if the Singapore Girl had been dropped as a brand icon many years ago in a moment of marketing panic.  Or if Volvo stopped talking about safety and sold itself on sex? 

  1. In your chapter titled “Brands Under Threat” you note that “Western companies are much better at building brands in Asia than Asian companies building brands in Asia.”  Can you explain what causes this and what more Asian companies need to do to build their brands?

Answer:  Western companies generally have more sophisticated marketing systems in place, have decades of experience, and understand the concept of brand equity (that their brands are corporate assets).  On the other hand, Asian companies have a trading tradition.  They are more inclined to expect immediate returns and want short-term gains.  This means long-term brand building takes a backseat to short-term promotions.  However, in a shrinking world, Asian companies do have the opportunity to develop and market world famous brands.  They can leapfrog Western brands and break with convention in many product categories.  Their brands could become more vibrant, more creative, more relevant than long-established Western brands, if only they invested the time to get it right.

Getting it right often means getting it wrong first.  Brands don’t just “happen” overnight.  The process of creating a brand is arduous: identifying the “gap” in the market, choosing a name, designing the logo and packaging, testing and refining them, then planning the communications… it takes a lot of time and energy, a lot of discipline and patience, and deep pockets.  There are rarely any shortcuts. 

The question is: how many Asian companies will embrace that process?  To be fair, with SARS coming hot on the heels of recent recessions and currency crises, many Asian companies have little encouragement to invest in the long term.  In fact, one could argue that their trading mentality is probably quite appropriate in today’s marketplace.  But ultimately, the smarter Asian companies will bite the bullet and give the West a run for its money.

  1. Is the same chapter, you portray a number of graphics (Year 2020 Population Projections, Top 10 Chinese Cities and Their Average Household), and you describe what you call the Asian Marketing Dilemma.  Can you explain what this dilemma is, how the graphics relate and how Asian companies can overcome this challenge?

 Answer:  Asia is all about diversity, but not just cultural.  On the surface, the vast population numbers look tempting for marketers.  However, these numbers often come with very low levels of disposable income.  In the book, we make the point that while Asia has three billion people, perhaps as few as 300 million individuals have significant disposable incomes to offer a worthwhile return on marketing investment for many mid- to up-market brands.  Which means, conventional advertising creativity (one commercial fits all) and conventional communications planning are inadequate for the task.  As part of our mission in the book, we believe a different kind of blueprint is required to crack this dilemma and ensure a proper return on investment for the brand owner.

  1. You note in Chapter 3 that “Today’s consumers are better educated, more confident and harder to influence than ever before.”  Can you explain this and how it effects marketing today?

Answer:  Once, marketers could define their brands for consumers.  Make one TV commercial and run it in some top rating TV shows so millions of consumers would see it.  Job done!
Those days have gone forever.  Today, consumers are defining brands, even redefining them.  And because consumers experience brands holistically these days, it’s not good enough to produce a wonderful TV commercial extolling the virtues of a brand if the claims do not match up to the actual brand experience.  Brands get one chance and if they don’t deliver, forget it.  Especially in this age of the networked consumer, they will share good and bad experiences with their friends.  Consumers have the power.  They must be shown enormous respect if marketers are to have any hope of them respecting their brands.

In the book, we argue that a triangular relationship exists between communication channels, brands and consumers.  Briefly, the choice of communication channel is key to building a successful brand relationship with any given consumer.  Given new technology, channels of communications are evolving at such a speed that no one can keep up with.  It’s no longer about using the same old media in the same old ways.  Nor is it about a 30-second TVC or a press ad answering a marketing issue.  Those days have gone. 

  1. One of the challenges for Asia you note is the numbers of Senior citizens in many Asian countries and how it affects marketing (Table: Comparison of Aging Demographics in Asia and Japan) .  Can you discuss what implications this may have for marketing in Asia?

Answer:  We specifically talked about the rapidly growing “grey market” to illustrate the new dynamic facing marketers.  One of our recommendations is that marketers have to reach out and talk to audiences as individuals.  In this context, as we argue in the book, whom you don’t reach becomes as important as whom you do!  Clearly, growing numbers of older consumers will respond to messages that address them as individuals, messages that have been crafted to reflect their interests.  The intelligent marketer will not try to make one message span all groups.  If he is targeting older Asians, he will research their media habits and the mindsets they have when exposed to those media.  We believe that many marketing and advertising practitioners have yet to face the fact that brand building in mass media may have had its day.  They have to understand the new relationships consumers have with brands and the media.  In fact, in regard to older consumers, the numbers are now significant enough for smart marketers to devise new brands, new products, that are specifically tailored for the “grey” market.  The opportunities are there.  Any takers?

  1. Two of the major brands in Asia are – what were thought of as the Super cities – Hong Kong and Singapore.  Obviously, both “brands” and their national airlines – Cathay and SIA respectively have been very struck very hard by SARS,  obviously Hong Kong much harder than Singapore.  If you were advising both cities leaders on rebuilding their “brand” what would your recommendations be and do you see Hong Kong in particular ever rebuilding from the damage it has taken?

 Answer:  The solution to the problem can be found on pages 54 through 63. Briefly, one possible scenario would be to start with a very reassuring and compelling global public relations campaign that sent a message it’s business as usual and all is safe.  As part of this campaign, influential journalists would be flown out to experience the post-SARS reality and write objective third-party stories.  CRM would support marketing initiatives such as specially discounted travel deals for businessmen, holiday packages, conventions packages, and the whole travel/tourism distribution chain would require special attention.   

Specifically, can Hong Kong ever recover from the effects of SARS?  Of course.  New York bounced back after 911.  And it didn’t take long for everyone to be comfortable again with post-War Germany and Japan…and their image problem was far worse than Hong Kong’s.

  1. Several other “brands” that maybe facing challenges are the U.S. and Britain in their attempt to build a new Iraq.  The challenge that both countries have taken on in Iraq is substantial.  If you were advising the leaders of both countries on using brand building and marketing to better support their goals, what would your recommendations be and what leads you to this conclusion?

 Answer:  We strongly recommend that George W. Bush and Tony Blair read the book!

  1. One of the “non-traditional new media” you describe in your book is the internet.  You discuss the SENSOR survey on Media and the fact that the survey ranked the Internet third after TV and radio in terms of ad avoidance.  How powerful a medium has the internet become and is the internet viewed differently for media purposes in Asia than in the U.S. and Europe?

 Answer:  The internet is not settling down to its reality after all the hyperbole of the late 90’s.  There is no doubt that in many areas, the internet provides unique characteristics that other media cannot match.  But, we should be conscious that the internet is simply a content delivery system (albeit a massively deep and broad system) as is television, radio, and even word of mouth.
As technology develops into more and more digital interactive platforms, the relevance of the net may well shift.  In basic terms, the net is probably the first truly global content provider and as such, its characteristics, benefits and uses are also global.  While in some Asian markets where the thirst for information is almost insatiable, the take-up may have been quicker than the west, overall there is not a great deal of difference between the East and the West when it comes to consumers views of the medium.

  1. Later in your book you discuss Communications Planning and Implementation (CP&I)  Can you explain exactly what CP&I is and why you feel it will have a powerful effect in changing the way that media is managed in the years ahead?

    Answer:  CP&I stands for Communications Planning and Implementation and is a brand new way to organize marketing communications within the ever evolving dynamics of today’s consumer-brand-channel interface.  In our view it is the way that all marketing communications programmes will be organized in the future. Read the book to find out more!

  2. In your chapter titled “Rewriting the Rules”, you discuss how you see advertising agencies reinventing themselves and restructuring their business models.  Could you discuss how you see this happening and give examples in Asia that you feel demonstrate some of your conclusions on how agencies will need to change?
Answer:  Consumers are increasingly immune to advertising.  Naturally enough, the advertising industry doesn’t like confronting this fact.  But the truth is we all have to challenge our own comfort zones in order to develop.  By definition, “discomfort” is a necessary agent for real change to happen.  This feeling of “discomfort” has been around for some time in our industry.  One has only to scratch beneath the surface of the general state of client-agency relationships to see how uncomfortable everyone is.  Clients worldwide are becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of willingness of agencies to embrace change.  Agencies have to find a new business model, especially given the unbundling of media from parent ad agencies, which is another cause of stress within the advertising community.  The book contains a positive way forward to harness the new marketing communications reality.


MARK AUSTIN, Chairman and CEO of Mediaedge:cia Asia Pacific, is regarded as the marketing communications industry’s high priest of media in Asia.  Named “Media Innovator of the Year 1998” by US trade publication Advertising Age, British-born Austin is a passionate advocate of media’s importance in brand building and a leading proponent of communications channel planning in Asia.  Austin’s media skills have been honed over twenty years, thirteen of which were spent running specialist media companies.  In 1995, he established media specialist CIA in Asia, building a network across Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand, and was a director of publicly quoted Tempus plc.  In 2000, Media & Marketing awarded CIA “Media Agency of the Year”.

JIM AITCHISON, an Australian, has worked as a creative director in Asia for twenty years, at such leading advertising agencies as The Ball Partnership and Batey Ads.  His many awards include ads he wrote in Chinese.  Now a full time author, his book How Asia Advertises was described by legendary marketing guru Jack Trout as “one of the best books on advertising I have ever read.”  His international best-seller Cutting Edge Advertising was hailed by British creative icon David Abbott as “the best book on print advertising”.  Aitchison lectures on advertising creativity, conducts creative workshops, writes children’s books and humour, and voices commercials and documentaries.

Copyright © 2007, Runckel & Associates
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About the Interviewer:   Christopher W. Runckel, a former senior US diplomat who served in many counties in Asia, is a graduate of the University of Oregon and Lewis and Clark Law School.  He served as Deputy General Counsel of President Gerald Ford’s Presidential Clemency Board.

Until April of 1999, Mr. Runckel was Minister-Counselor of the US Embassy in Beijing, China.  Mr. Runckel lived and worked in Thailand for over six years.  He was the first permanently assigned U.S. diplomat to return to Vietnam after the Vietnam War.  In 1997, he was awarded the U.S. Department of States highest award for service, the Distinguished Honor Award, for his contribution to improving U.S.-Vietnam relations.  Mr. Runckel is one of only two non-Ambassadors to receive this award in the 200-year history of the U.S. diplomatic service.


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