The task is a nightmare to Asians and non-Asians alike, marketers say. "People tend to forget that Asia is even more complex than Europe because of the autonomous development of small geographies," said Candace Wong, chairman-CEO, BBDO Hong Kong.
"Each has its own laws, business styles, ethics, history of development-and an obvious historical usage of media. If you find anyone who really understands the media of Japan, China, India, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and so on, then they are indeed a novelty."
Ms. Wong cites cosmopolitan Hong Kong as an example. "In a population of 6 million, there are about 625 magazines and more than 40 newspapers that distribute only in the colony. Think about that relative to Chicago's size and media availability. And Hong Kong is not atypical."
While a few advertising agencies are trying to understand the problem, the insularity of many multinational marketers stunts the development of pan-regional media, said Michael Mann, chief executive of Australian Television. The service beams satellite news, sports and entertainment programs into 20 Asian/Pacific countries.
"Most multinationals seem to have difficulties in grasping how to use the media, especially TV," he said. "Generally speaking, they are simply not structured to sell across several Asian countries."
Alex Hamill, chairman of George Patterson Bates in Sydney and regional director of Bates Asia, agreed. "You can get a ghetto operation, where regional offices work well by themselves but have no binding philosophy. Many internationals think the answer is to have a creative director for the region, but it doesn't work-it's just an excuse to fly in, drop a pearl of wisdom on the carpet and leave."
To break this pattern, Bates uses its Australian operation as the driving force for the strength of its business, strategy and media development resources. Bates Australia has $575 million in billings; Bates Asia's 17 offices have total billings of $300 million.
But the agency has a managing director in Hong Kong and a senior account director for each client's local needs handling its voice across Asia.
BBDO does most planning and buying for Asia locally, Ms. Wong said.
"However, some is done `back home,' and usually this is a mistake," she said. "While global centralized objectives and strategies are good, understanding markets and the resultant quality of execution and monitoring can usually be best executed locally-otherwise, why have local agencies?"
"Some of our multinational clients are very centralized in their copy development process," said Kent Wertime, Damask/BBDO, Bangkok. "Wella Corp., for example, employs a worldwide format, which we are obliged to follow in local markets around the world, while others, such as Carlsberg AS, allow us to develop copy locally, which Carlsberg reviews at headquarters prior to production."
Kao Corp., a Japanese personal and household goods marketer, with affiliates throughout the region, apparently agrees with this position.
Kao plans its advertising through each division's marketing directors rather than ad agencies. Each affiliated company in other Asian markets plans ad budgets individually and sells in local languages.
TV advertising accounts for 90% of Kao's ad budget.
Another Japanese multinational detergent marketer said that it uses TV primarily throughout Asia to reach its target, though it finds the medium expensive. Its marketing personnel work closely with its agency to plan strategy.
It's difficult to do pan-Asian planning well, Ms. Wong said. "Companies and agencies both need strength locally, with solid regional directions and disciplined pan-regional communications.
"Most marketers still prioritize budgets based on current sales, vs. sales potential. Most don't weigh market factors in an orderly way in allocating funding; even fewer align these factors with media efficiencies and media effectiveness measures when making their investment allocations among various countries."
Marketers decide whether to use English- or local-language media based on the language most easily understood by the target, which generally means non-English marketing. And marketers are helped by having the choice of pan-regional media when the product or service is targeted at those whose primary language is English or, subregionally, Chinese.
"But it's important to note that pan-national media often are questioned for effectiveness," Ms. Wong said. "It's a matter of the lack of local dialects or languages against the efficiency of the buy.
"It happens every day in China when considering national media, given the multitude of dissimilar tongues. Even in countries like Thailand, for example, where there's an official language, the dialects of `normal' daily conversation vary markedly from north to south."
"The people who tend to read both local- and English-language publications are generally more affluent and better educated than average," said Damask/BBDO's Mr. Wertime. "So when we plan luxury goods advertising in Hong Kong, we would include the South China Morning Post as well as the local Chinese press, because it is a good way of targeting affluent Chinese as well as expatriates."
International TV services throughout Asia sometimes avoid the language barrier through local cable networks, which broadcast the satellite signals themselves or sell them to smaller operators, attracting local ads in the local dialect, Mr. Mann said.
In the Philippines, Taiwan and other countries, international satellite service is fed directly into local cable networks, while Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong rely on more sophisticated programming, adding local ads to station breaks in the direct transmission. Chinese stations delay the services for dubbing and for adding advertising.
"We're all constantly breaking new ground," said Mr. Mann. "There are no existing rules or guidelines, so we have to invent them as we progress."
But media research is only starting to catch up to what's available in the U.S., Europe, Japan and Australia. The availability of the research lags behind the demand for it, but its cost exceeds the financial capabilities of the companies paying for it. Many groups do not use the available research.
AC Nielsen/SRG, Kuala Lumpur, is introducing PeopleMeters to Malaysia, and Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai will get a PeopleMeter ratings service by mid-1996. China, with a population of 1.2 billion, has one of the world's fastest-growing TV industries, with some 600 terrestrial stations and 1,200 cable systems.
"The launch of a PeopleMeter service has been very much part of SRG China's dreams and plans," said Managing Director Louis Tong. "The rapid growth of television, particularly with cable, has encouraged us to start with the standard PeopleMeter rather than with a diary-based system."
Planning in some markets relies on hypothesis. "You simply do the best you can based upon judgment and experience," said Ms. Wong.
TV programming development typifies today's opportunity-and its investment dilemma, she said. "Many countries simply don't have the expertise or funding to generate high quality, locally attractive programs. They're interested in international offerings, which international developers and distributors are more than willing to sell, or lease."
So will Asia become Westernized with American and European tastes, just as much of the world was "Hollywoodized" in the 1930s and '40s? Research in April 1994 by BrainWaves Group, a division of DMB&B, New York, on media behavior among 1,500 Asian students between 15 and 18, and their influences, indicates that may be the case.
TV moguls like Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner and Kerry Packer seek to buy exclusive rights to extensive sports and movie programming to feed the demand for programs by their expanding international TV networks.
Asked, for instance, whether watching TV was an "enjoyment" activity, 93% of kids in Singapore said "yes," 97% in the Philippines, 98% in Indonesia, 88% in Korea and 98% in Thailand-compared with a world average of 93%. Many of the sports they watched were distinctly "un-Asian,"-with audiences often higher than the world average-like basketball, skiing, American football, rugby, polo, field and ice hockey, and boat racing.
While international players influence Asian TV, some are hesitant to spend money to learn what appeals to local cultures and so develop local programming.
"For now, short-term returns don't warrant large investments," Ms. Wong said.
"A great challenge, if not the greatest of all for multinational agencies, is developing creative yet effective media solutions. While `great creative ideas' for ads can be cross-cultural and often are, outsiders struggle to generate media-specific equivalents."
Jack Russell contributed to this story.