Innovation 'rises' in the East

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OMG's APAC CEO calls on the East to lead the world in innovation -- again

In 1997, I decided to get back to my Chinese roots and find an opportunity to live and work in Hong Kong. As the old saying goes, "timing is everything," and a role fast became available at Leo Burnett. So I packed my bags, said goodbye to friends and family in Melbourne, and embarked upon my first gig in Asia.

On my first day in the new assignment, I remember looking out the window of my office and being struck by a beautiful image of a traditional Chinese junk positioned amongst the backdrop of a modern city.

It was a fantastic metaphor to describe how Asia was changing quickly and sailing into a new era.

Eighteen years later, and change is not only the constant but it’s occurring at an exponential rate. Today’s generation, Millennials, have experienced more change than any other generation in history.

There are many ways to predict where the world is moving, but probably the most accurate is to look at the line of causality, the sequence of cause and effect.

Technology (the cause) is responsible for most of the changes (the effect) that are occurring around us today. Changes that are occurring at a super-fast rate.

Technological changes in the internet, interfaces (screens, mobile, PCs, tablets, TV) and infrastructure (connectivity, broadband speeds) have changed the way audiences consume media and the way advertisers use media to engage with consumers.

Many of these changes are now being driven out of Asia.

While "innovation" is a much hyped word, there is no doubt that innovation in technology has helped to accelerate the rate of change, and continues to do so.

When we hear the word innovation in the context of our industry, names like Google, Amazon, and Apple come to mind. Over the past few decades, the West has contributed many innovative business models that have changed the way people live. Amazon in 1994 changed the way consumers purchased. In 1998, Google redefined how we search for information. The iPod in 2001 changed the way we listen to (and buy) music, Facebook in 2004 changed the way we socialise, YouTube in 2005 changed the way we view content and the iPad in 2010 changed the way we interact with computers.

In many respects, you could say the West has dominated with much innovation, and this has shaped the rate of change today.

But what if the focus for innovation was no longer on the West and the world looked to the East for innovation?

Much like that Chinese junk sailing into a new era, the East is also sailing into a new era.

As the astronomer Carl Sagan once said, "You have to know the past to understand the present." We need to step back in time to understand the contribution of the East to innovation. We used to dominate in this area, and it's time for us to do so again.

Some of the biggest innovations in history have come from our own backyard. Take the example of paper (arguably one of the greatest inventions of all time). Little did Cai Lun, a political official in the Han dynasty, know that his idea of crushing bark of trees with hemp, adding water and draining them through fishing nets would produce paper — an invention that would transform the world.

The invention of gunpowder during the time of the Tang dynasty and the compass (the first step in globalisation) during the reign of the Song dynasty were two other noted discoveries from China that revolutionised the world.

Fast forward to today. Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent — the famous BAT trio are leading the digital transformation in China, soon to be the world’s largest digital advertising market. Innovation is what makes these companies stay ahead. For example, we often talk about the challenge of engaging with consumers through the purchase funnel. Tencent is actually transforming the way this works. By leveraging technology, they can now engage consumers with brands from awareness to consideration to purchase using WeChat.

Alibaba recorded the biggest IPO in September last year at $25 billion. Its three main sites — Taobao, Tmall and — handle more business than any other e-commerce company. Alibaba integrates various functions and features to build an online ecosystem which creates an infrastructure and utility for customers to buy their favourite products.

The ability to offer utility is a critical component of innovation-led change. Baidu is not just about information and searching but also provides the necessary ecosystem to book a ticket, or reserve a table.

WeChat from Tencent currently has 1.1 billion subscribers. The next highest in the social-messaging space is WhatsApp with 700 million subscribers. However, WeChat is not just messaging but also allows users to access entertainment, potentially date somebody, play games and so on.

The bottom line is that whatever innovation we produce has to be useful as utility will ultimately drive growth.

So innovation is a vitally important driver of societal change.

Innovation is the only way to get disproportionate and transformational ROI and innovation is the only way for us to create meaningful change.

Asia has a rich history of leading innovation, and it’s time for us to reclaim that territory. There is more confidence in this region right now than any other time, so let’s show the world that we can lead with innovation. As Asia sails into an exciting future, I’m confident that we can lead the innovation agenda once again. It’s time to see innovation rise from East.

Cheuk Chiang is APAC CEO of Omnicom Media Group.

This article first appeared on


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