Staff Writer
Aug 15, 2017

One-on-one with Cindy Yan Chan

Focus Media’s chief strategy officer has a fervour for shaping brands and aiding national economic development. Atifa Silk spoke with Chan about recent victories, adapting the company’s innovations across international waters, and the work-life balance of one of Asia-Pacific’s leading career women.

Cindy Chan
Cindy Chan

Focus Media is China’s most prominent digital media network based on daily life scenes, but their business model is in a constant state of reinvention. Through relentless product upgrades and key partnerships, the company now reaches more than 200 million Chinese consumers every day while they’re shopping, standing in the lift, or settling in line at the cinema. Translating that reach to new markets requires deep consumer insight and an unfettered vision for the future, but Chan’s outlook remains fresh and fierce.

Atifa Silk: You own 70 percent of the lift poster media and 95 percent of the building LCD markets in China. How did you achieve such deep penetration?

Cindy Yan Chan: There are three philosophies at the core of our strategy. First, initiative. There is this notion that TV is something you view at home, among family. We wanted to put this media, this unique viewing space, out in the world. At the time it was a tall order.

Display media in elevators started back in 2003, but before that, it was nonexistent in China, and we saw immediate competition with the traditional TV market. It was a new concept, but the initiative to move onwards and upwards made all the difference for us.

Since then, we’ve reached millions of consumers, which takes me to our second core philosophy—reach. Our target audience is educated, with high-income. They’re also high spenders. We focus on these individuals not just because of their status, but also because they’re opinion leaders in China; they’re capable of influencing the whole market. You can’t speak to everyone all at once, but you can build relationships with those who have impact.

Third, and perhaps most important, is innovation. We think fast and forward. We strive to provide a design that surprises people, that takes the best of today’s tech and uses it to everyone’s advantage. Our displays can now interact with consumers thanks to iBeacon, wi-fi and NFC integration, as well as QuickPay and Apple Pay, all linked with our ever-growing database. These trends are always evolving, and so are we.

Atifa Silk: How much spend are you seeing from multinational brands, as compared to domestic ones?

Cindy Yan Chan: It’s very balanced between international and local brands. Internet brands in China like Alibaba, JD, and are investing more in our strategy, they’re our top sector, but a lot of successful international brands are using our media as well.

We also have a lot of newcomers. These clients are unique because they can’t afford to compete with every brand on every channel, there’s just too much ground to cover at too great a cost. You know, to be a sponsor on The Voice of China ran you Rmb400 million [US$59.1 million] in 2016. Few have the resources for that type of outreach. We’ve supported a lot of these newer brands that have grown by exclusively using our solutions, and we’ve done it within their budgets.

Atifa Silk: What market developments from the last year inspire your work?

Cindy Yan Chan: In China, traditional media has been struggling, you can see the results in CTR’s market research. Last year, it was down 6 percent, whereas new media grew by 18.5 percent. Focus Media’s business lines have seen growth recently. Building LCD, lift poster and cinema video ads grew by 22.4 percent, 24.1 percent and 44.8 percent respectively.

The industry is growing away from old norms, this goes beyond just ‘going digital’. Now more than ever people are being turned on to new, unique venues for advertising.

If you move beyond the charts and numbers, you’ll notice that the brands having success are the ones approaching new forms of media, and staying creative. For brands that want to expand outside of China, this is especially true.


Cindy Yan Chan says opportunity is rife for Chinese brands, but it’s imperative to foster creative thought, and stay ahead of the tech curve

Atifa Silk: Have you laid a foundation globally?

Cindy Yan Chan: In Southeast Asia, we’re seeing similar trends and a like-minded target audience. So, we’re excited about our prospects there. Routine life settings like office buildings, apartment blocks, cinemas and lifts are necessary for consumers in the region to access on a daily basis, often multiple times.

We’re starting to shape our identity in the West as well, which is very exciting. Bringing home New York Festivals’ very first China Brand Communication Award was huge for us. It was motivating to be recognised on an international stage. Personally, I’m driven by these types of wins, as I don’t measure our success solely on profits.

Our time at Cannes Lions was also very special. China’s media innovation was a talking point throughout the festival, especially during this year’s China Day, so the occasion was a natural fit for us to speak about our research and experience. While it’s true a lot of Chinese brands are globalising, many international brands are also looking to connect with Chinese consumers.

I think we left our audience with a better understanding of the country’s regional characteristics and local consumer groups. A lot of the week’s sessions we attended were quite revealing for us as well.

Atifa Silk: What is some of the consumer research you’re doing in market, and are you expecting to do more in the future?

Cindy Yan Chan: We’re very focused on consumer insight. All brands, all agencies are interested in this, I meet with clients quite often to discuss their goals in the coming year, and it’s been part of our business approach for the past 14 years.

Segments of our recent consumer research have spurred on our investments in sports, finance and entertainment content to better connect with millennials, and the gaming industry to connect those born in the 2000s. We’re investing in the future, and not just based on our own findings, but based on client feedback as well.

Atifa Silk: With 14 years of experience in the industry, what conditions are present in the market climate now that make it a good time to go global? Where can we expect to see international offices opening in the near future?

Cindy Yan Chan: Economic growth has been a big factor in our decision to expand. We’re part of a much larger movement of Chinese brands going global. Alibaba, Oppo, Huawei: perfect examples. These companies are our clients; they understand our efficiency and our effectiveness, and we’ve made this stride together.

As far as new locales, I just flew in from India as I’m heading our division there—it’s absolutely unbelievable: the new world and old world collide. You can see there is so much potential there, and I couldn’t think of a better place to develop our business. We already have offices in Korea and we’ll be breaking ground around much of Southeast Asia in the near future.

Atifa Silk: With such immense work in the pipeline how are you navigating your work life and personal life at once?

Cindy Yan Chan: I’m a professional, but I’m also a mother. In the past 20 years, I’ve always balanced my life between work and family. I feel happy when I see our team having success, when people I mentor grow, when I see the Chinese market making progress, and when I see my family grow as well. The values I have for my family are the same I have for my work—strive to help others.

I also try to act as role model for our younger female talents in particular. I think that’s where I see these two distinct facets of my life coming together—while I work with these women, I also empathise with them on a personal level. I’ve seen great success as a woman in our industry, but it hasn’t been easy.

Atifa Silk: Have you been doing a lot to inspire a culture of gender equality in the workplace?

Cindy Yan Chan: Last year in particular was a banner year for gender-equality initiatives. I had a great experience at the Global Summit of Women in Warsaw, where I had the pleasure of giving a speech about the market climate in China and what it spells for female talent. Our team also brought home the 2016 Excellent Unit Award from the ACWF [All-China Women’s Federation].

In our group’s offices I always encourage our young female leaders to be heard, to speak up in the boardroom, to understand that their femininity is a strength. We all deserve the right to fulfil our own potential.

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