Asia once again represents new hope for global market

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When Sir Martin Sorrell, inimitable CEO of the WPP Group, moves it is rarely in mysterious ways. It may take a little time for those of us in the back to keep up, but he is not partial to the British taste for the cryptic-not least because Wall Street and the City of London don't care for it either.

So, his recent pronouncement that WPP had linked with the 650 million member Youth League of China garnered a lot of interest (at least outside the U.S.), partly because it wasn't immediately apparent why.

At WPP's recent third-quarter results announcement he explained. It was, he said, part of a drive to reach consumers in more remote parts of that vast country-which tells you both that the Chinese government is bent on modernizing the entire country, and that Sorrell is determined, like Rupert Murdoch's Star TV before him, to grab his share of the most lucrative new pie in world advertising.

So Sorrell's accompanying explanation that he had been allowed-unusually-to make direct investments in Chinese agencies should be viewed in the context of the Youth League initiative and his further pronouncement that Greater China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan) represents $250 million in revenues, already his fifth largest region.

With Europe's rebound from recession lagging even the U.S.'s long, slow haul back, Asia once again represents the most serious opportunity for growth in the global ad economy.

China dominates thinking, as its population size demands it should, but Russia and India are the two other great hopes. However, last month's arrest of Yukos oil tycoon Oleg Khordorkovsky (Russia's richest man) precipitated the largest one-day crash in the Russian stock market since 1998, wiping $14.5 billion of the value of shares, and reminding all concerned that Russia continues to be an exceptionally volatile and dangerous long-term bet.

That brings us to India, and one of the reasons why when you read this column, I shall be in the wonderful "pink city" of Jaipur, Rajasthan at Ad Asia 2003 (already over 1,000 delegates signed up) moderating at arguably the largest media event ever staged in India.

India has long been regarded as too difficult a long-term prospect for growth because of the notorious difficulties Western companies have had in getting their earnings out of the country.

I am told that this tri-annual event will address this matter and feature much discussion along the lines of "Asia, the new Superpower" and "Brand India" with the heads of the major Indian conglomerates Birla, Tata, Ambani and Infosys conspicuous as sponsors and speakers. If you haven't heard of the brands yet. You will. You can be sure Sir Martin has.

It will make a refreshing change to talk of growth and potential and new markets. However, many western companies have had their fingers horribly burned in China, and Russia in particular. There is no "dollar's revenue for everybody" equation. Asia needs to put its best face forward and prove that times have indeed changed. Because the truth is that everyone is desperate for it to be the case.

Stefano Hatfield is contributing editor to Creativity and Advertising Age

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