"Although tremendous change and innovation are happening in the US, we are, of course, not the center of the universe…" A magnanimous statement describing the content of Global Perspectives on the Digital Revolution, the ad:tech panel that I attended yesterday. I wasn't quite so sure most believed it.
Moderated by Paul Maidment, editor for Forbes.com, the panel was not really as global as one might hope.
My first thought upon walking into the packed conference room at the Hilton hotel in New York was "Wait… am I in the right room?" Five, identically suited, white male panelists sat behind the table up front, while the audience consisted mainly of mainly white professionals, with a smattering of Asian attendees. Global what?
As the discussion began, I was somewhat appeased by the British and Australian accents of Maidment and panelist Adam Good (Executive Director of Digital Innovation, Clemenger Communications) respectively, which served to infuse some variation into what could otherwise have been deemed a suspiciously homogenous group. Still – while all the panelists had worked and lived in various parts of the world, none of them were from the regions the panel centered around.
In spite of prior claims about attempting to identify what marketers could learn from other parts of the world that were doing valuable things, the discussion focused on efforts that Western marketers have made, or will make, to break into Latin American and Asian markets (the former within the United States.) There was no mention of the phenomenon of a reverse colonization of marketplaces- from the third world to the West. Neither was there any discussion about markets within Latin America as promised by the panel description; instead all discussion in that area centered on the Hispanic market in the US.
It should have been called "How Western Companies Can Break into Emerging Asian and European Markets." Or something to that effect anyway.
Altogether some good thoughts, but nothing earth-shattering or particularly insightful. Here are some highlights.
"The future is already here. It just isn't evenly distributed." Maidment kicked the discussion off with this thought, a theme which continued throughout as different speakers underscored how various regions displayed cultural specificities that marketers needed to be aware of before they made any moves.
The panel began by emphasizing the growing importance of social networks and mobile phones as new phenomena for marketers to focus on. A brief video presentation on "Asia" consisted of a display of impressive statistics about China, Japan and Korea that detailed the region's rise in Web 2.0, public wiFii broadband connections, and enterprise mobile IM users. One perfunctory line on India was the only mention of this country during the entire panel.
Adam Good explained the distinction between Asian usage and Western usage of mobile phones, with the former having a different market due to a stronger proclivity to use public transport rather than cars.
Marc Landsberg (President of Arc Worldwide) jumped in to emphasize how even within Asia, there are vast differences in culture- Japan and Korea for instance are very different Singapore, in which companies are far more concerned with ROI and how much money they are dishing out.
China differs from Korea in that the latter is far more advanced, with 89% of the Internet audience having broadband, an advanced 3G market (something China lacks) and companies like LG that keep pushing the bar higher. The Philippines too have an advanced mobile consumption – with many making micro payments via SMS for instance.
In response to a question by Maidment as to whether all countries are eventually going to catch up, finally ending up on a level plane, Ole Obermann (VP of International Digital Business Development, Sony BMG) explained that in certain markets, like Southern Europe where digital forms about 7 to 8% of marketing budgets, the importance of digital marketing will certainly continue to increase, however "a 35 year old Spanish guy's time off may not be spent downloading to his mobile; maybe he prefers to drink wine in the sun."
"It's about finding a product or strategy that speaks to people in a country," he went on to add, explaining that Ringback Tone, in which consumers get to select what their callers hear when they call their mobiles, have taken off in Greece because "Greeks like to express themselves… It's a cultural thing."
Marc Landsberg explained that "the future of digital marketing is mobile and it's local. Content that is most relevant is local content that can be linked to local communities and to the physical world that matters."
Landsberg also underscored the importance of social networking as a marketing tool, citing the Fiat 500 project he worked on, in which a social network was built up around Fiat. The aim was to get people involved in design decisions about the car, effectively creating an involved user community so that "when the time came to buy the car, you not only knew all about it, you also knew about the other people who were also buying the car."
Peter Blacker (Senior VP, Digital Media, NBC Universal, Telemundo Network Group) offered his insights on this, underscoring that while social networks can be great, it is important to be aware of cultural specificities. The concept of identity is heavily diverse and these differences extend far beyond language. He went on to identify music as one way to reach across cultural boundaries and played a demo of a new Telemundo effort to explore the Hispanic-American identity by using humor to focus on the idea of being Latino but not speaking Spanish; the target being the Hispanic audience in the US.
Finally, in response to a question from the audience about what the "next big thing" in the US digital markets would be, Good identified shopping via mobile phones, while Landsberg identified the usage of mobile phones as an identity device. Obermann predicted that in 3 to 5 years people will be paying a subscription fee to have music streamed to them whenever they want and wherever they are – the concept of ownership will be increasingly trumped by the concept of access.