After years when market indexes and gross domestic product growth rates bounded to ever greater heights, most investors, exporters and foreign companies with operations in Asia are now saying wait and see. The new buzzwords are consolidation, rationalization and restructuring.
This is a conservative response, and is actually great news for idea-driven companies with vision that want to expand their Asian markets.
`FINDING THE INVERSE'
I believe the success of visionaries comes from finding the inverse in every position. In challenges, find opportunities. In recession, look for growth. Right now it looks like the best time ever to invest, acquire and build a business in Asia.
Advertising spending-a key indicator of economic confidence-will continue to grow impressively in Asia. I am predicting China will be the world's largest advertising market early in the new millennium. (It'll be the biggest beer market then, too.)
No single expansion strategy will work for all of Asia. Asia is made up of many separate and distinct regional markets: China (or, indeed, the eight Chinas), Japan, Taiwan, Korea and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries.
The particular opportunities presented by the current adversity will vary in each market. What is clear, though, is there will be considerable opportunities for bold, visionary companies.
RECESSION AS OPPORTUNITY
The companies that will make the most of these opportunities understand recessions offer the best opportunity to build market share and enhance their brands.
Hewlett-Packard Co., for example, a global Saatchi & Saatchi client, has affirmed Asia's role as its major production base as it prepares for major growth in Asian computer sales over the next two years.
Procter & Gamble Co., the world's biggest advertiser, is also reassessing its position in China, building considerable momentum for the long term.
Brand building during a recession is easier because competitors will be cutting costs. When margins are squeezed by a sluggish economy, often the first place the knife goes to is the brand marketing budget. Such short-sighted cuts to marketing investment only open the door for competitors with a longer vision to take up your market share.
Brand building during a recession is also very cheap. Media cut costs, and the same reach and frequency is available at around 30% of the pre-recession cost. Great value for great brands.
The competitive vacuum created by a recession makes it the best time to launch new categories or brands. Consumers don't stop buying when economies go through down cycles. They look harder for value.
Launching in a tight-margin, recessionary environment encourages discipline over unnecessary costs and strict inventory controls. This makes an excellent platform for peak performance when the economic cycle turns up.
Many companies are cutting costs, reducing prices, stopping product launches, introducing third-tier products, cutting brand support, focusing on problems and reacting urgently with lots of meetings, lots of memos and lots of controls.
This provides a great opportunity for the peak performers to launch new brands, build equity, steal the best people, increase brand support, empower more and focus on the top line and the future. The winners will be those who stop talking, stop meeting and start acting.
Acquisitions have never been cheaper, and investments will not offer such great value for long. Recessionary markets offer the most aggressive upside. The only proviso: Make sure your targeted investment vehicle has strong free cash flow.
We believe the size of the correction in Asian markets has amplified the depression in confidence unjustifiably. For the investor with a confident view of Asia's long-term future, many companies and stocks are severely undervalued. Fewer investors will be competing for opportunities. Serious debt problems mean many of Asia's most aggressive companies will be constrained as to how they can invest in the medium term.
Asian business people and consumers appreciate loyalty. They remember companies and brands that show commitment during difficult times. For a brand, the potential negative impact of pulling back in adversity could be considerable.
There are temporary setbacks in all great success stories, and Asian economic development is no exception. Asian economies have some serious structural financial problems, but I am confident they will resolve them with the same collective intelligence, energy, enterprise and ambition that has pushed them forward so impressively during the past 20 years.
I've seen it happen. As chief operating officer of Lion Nathan, one of New Zealand's largest companies and the nation's leading brewer, I was a part of the economic revolution that took the New Zealand economy from the brink of bankruptcy in 1984 to being one of the world's most open and vigorous developed economies today.
New Zealand was liberated by vision, ideas and a rigorous commitment to revolution. This, too, will continue to happen in Asia.
Mr. Roberts is CEO-worldwide, Saatchi & Saatchi, New York.