Foong Li Mei
Jan 2, 2020

The decade that was: What has changed and what hasn’t for APAC adland

Roles got bigger, ad spend got smaller, and #metoo got stuck. Foong Li Mei looks back at how APAC ad agencies’ business and life have changed in the past 10 years.


Remember Farmville? In 2010, the social game that revolved around, well, farming was the biggest of its kind with 80 million users. It was also a time when people were ‘BBM-ing’ (Blackberry messaging) each other—Blackberry broke into the top five best-selling phones worldwide that year. And at the top of the top? Nokia.

Over in adland, the decade began with predictions that the Internet will be the world’s third largest advertising medium, overtaking most of the other media. The rise of consumer-generated content via YouTube or blogs also made agencies realise that it had to break out of its monologue messaging towards customers and dialogue with them instead. That also meant poking around the then-spanking-new social media platforms like WeChat and Instagram. And what’s with this hashtag thing that Twitter had just officially adopted in 2009?

Ten years passed. Now, words like ‘Farmville’, ‘Nokia’, and ‘BBM’ had been cast into the dusty corners of the human lexicon. In 2017, the Internet has overtaken TV to be the largest advertising medium. The obsession with social games moved from cute farms to battle royale bloodbath—the PUBG Mobile Club Open 2019, a popular mobile eSports tournament held in Malaysia this month, attracted 532 million viewers via live streaming, which was 11 times more than 2018.

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User-generated content has never been so saturated and perplexing. The latest puzzle is TikTok. With 500 million active users, nailing the advertising strategy for the short-form video-sharing app is as urgent as its name suggests. At least, until the next “fastest-growing video platform” hits Asia Pacific (APAC).

Meanwhile, the duopoly of Google and Facebook spells double trouble for many digital publishers and adtech shops that has popped up over the decade. The two tech behemoths, now the largest digital ad sellers in the world, have gobbled up 65 percent of APAC’s total digital ad revenue (excluding China), according to Digital in Asia.

Warc also reported that Google and Facebook’s share of the global online ad market is expected to rise to 61.4% this year, while internet spend for the rest of the online publishers are in decline.

“The rise of platforms like YouTube (owned by Google), Facebook and so on are altering the course of business. Agencies are no longer competing within traditional rivals in the advertising industry, but with platforms that have started to commoditise our value offerings,” says Marivic Garcia, president of OMG Advertising in the Philippines.

Unlike in the old days when ads speak to a broad audience, she explains, advertising in Google or Facebook is much more targeted, customised and timely due to the voluminous personal consumer data it possesses.

Marivic Garcia

“Although the use of data may arguably be anonymised, it still has the advantage of precision-targeting across many different devices at a much faster speed than before. As such, it challenges the value that traditional advertising agencies bring to the table,” Garcia points out.

Doing more for less

Competition from the duopoly is just one of the setbacks for the past few years. Other greatest hits of the decade include squeezed ad spend budgets, compounded by brand powerhouses increasingly axing their agency rosters to take creative in house.

Fast and cheap have become the name of the game. Amer Jaleel, CCO and chairman of MullenLowe Lintas Group in India, sees a rising trend of “live for the day”—marketers chasing wins quarter-to-quarter.

“[The scavenging] for results have turned many companies away from the strengths of long-term brand-building. I find this both inexplicable and, frankly, a bit suicidal. One of the big symptoms of this manifests in media spends. What gets you visible results this quarter gets a disproportionate portion of the budget,” he explains.

Garcia has a similar observation—in her case, close client-agency relationships cultivated over the long-term to understand the market has dissipated over the decade.

Now, she says, the focus is on cost. “In fact, in some cases, procurement makes the call on who gets the project based on the lowest quote, and not on the strength of credentials.”

Cost-consciousness is likely a response to the economic recession fears that have hovered over the region over the past few years.

Jan Cho, managing director of TBWA Hong Kong, points out that the economic downturn, the stalemate of trade wars and months of unrest in Hong Kong have put businesses in their most testing time in history. While marketing spend has shrunk, he believes that the squeeze has pushed agencies to be more innovative in working with trackable metrics to convert sales.

For example, increasingly sophisticated measurement of real-time consumer data takes the guessing game out of a campaign. “Now, we can optimise the content and targets on the go, so every dollar spent can achieve a better result…We no longer need to shoot in the dark, at least not completely,” notes Cho.

Jan Cho

Garcia agrees that “the transparent and intelligent use of customer data” adds value to agencies’ offerings in an era of falling service fees and stiff competition.

“To compete in the digital economy, advertising agencies are embracing the change as they now start to look into and incorporate social media listening, online content creation, blogging, gaming, behavioral profiling and personalisation of messages in their service offerings,” she says.

For example, OMG Advertising has launched proprietary software tools like Geogen, which provides easier access to population data per community for precise audience targeting.

But piling on roles and capabilities to stay competitive risks stretching the limits of an advertising outfit, especially when teams are getting leaner these days.

“Skyrocketing growth of digital ad market has had a big effect on the ecosystem of the local ad industry, and it has influence on our profit system. Previously, ad agencies were used to producing longer-form content and big ad pieces. However, now, agencies are being asked to produce more content, across multiple channels, including management of said channels, and be responsible for the digital marketing ecosystem for clients,” says Kim Jangyong, managing director of BBDO Korea.

This has changed the way agencies cost out projects and work, according to him. “One of the biggest, newest challenges to arise in Korea is how to achieve efficiency in order for our business to thrive and grow.”

Jaleel shares Kim’s dilemma. He welcomes the “the hyper-bundling and collision of PR, media and brand creative on a day-to-day basis”. But, to him, the current fee structure and retainer model are outdated and does not commensurate agencies’ expanded services.

As he puts it, the ripple effect is “more work, more kinds of work and work more often”.

That sounds like the jingle of adland in general.


In 2015, news of a suicide rocked the advertising industry. Matsuri Takahashi, a 24-year-old employee of Dentsu in Japan, killed herself on Christmas Day. Labour standards inspectors later ruled the cause as karoshi, or death from overwork. Investigations showed she was forced to work overtime ranging from 70 to 130 hours per month, and she sometimes slept no more than 10 hours in a week.

The case cast a spotlight on the infamously-brutal work culture of Japan’s largest advertising agency—and of the whole country in general. But ‘modern slavery’ is not unique to Japan. It is an open secret that advertising industry across Asia squeeze as many hours as it can from its workforce.

A survey that Campaign Asia ran in 2018 showed that more than half the respondents from the communications industry felt overworked (see "Overwork in adland: More than 50% say health affected"). A worrying 50% also said their health suffered from it. Nearly three in five reported working 51 hours or more per week, while 24% said they clocked in more than 60 hours a week (the region’s full-time work week is generally regarded as 45 hours). The poll was conducted across 15 Asia-Pacific markets, with more than 40% of respondents from advertising agencies.

But some agencies are game to do better. Campaign Asia reported that Hong Kong-based digital agency APV trialed a four-day work week, while Hong Kong Secret Tour’s staff get month-long sabbatical in shifts.

Even in Japan, hope springs.

“Work hours have improved. New laws introduced have placed a cap on overtime work per month, and agencies and clients will need to further implement work hour changes. I’m optimistic, and these new laws ensure that everyone across the industry is made aware and made to think about what work-life balance means and how it should look,” says Masaya Asai, global creative director at TBWA Hakuhodo in Japan.

Glacial change

Work hours aside, the last decade also saw increased scrutiny on adland’s diversity, especially at the leadership table.

In 2019, Campaign Asia’s diversity survey with Kantar actually showed worsened inequality compared to two years prior (see "APAC adland inequality persists in race, age and gender: Exclusive research"). Respondents who thought that men and women are equally treated in their organisation has dropped by 15%. Over half of the people said that men are more respected by top management—double of 2017. Both men and women agreed that the situation at their workplaces were not looking up.

More people—24% of men and 38% of women— also reported either having experienced or observed sexual harassment, a small rise from 2018.

The silver lining is that 70% pointed out they felt more empowered to speak out about sexual harassment now than they did two years ago, and 69% noted their company taking sexual harassment more seriously than it did in 2017.

After all, this marks the second year that the #metoo wildfire had razed industries, from showbiz to engineering to, yes, advertising. India was one of the feistiest boat-rockers—a series of accusations, from bullying to rape, erupted from adland. A few people were fired, but the inferno seemed to have fizzled out. 

Jaleel, Cho, and Asai concur that adland in their respective markets are falling short in improving diversity and gender equality, but note that it is trying.

Jaleel promises that his shop, MullenLowe Lintas, comes down fast and heavy on even “a tiny misbehaviour”. Asai is trying to bring more women into his team.

Amer Jaleel

Cho also says that TBWA has a ‘Take the Lead’ initiative that aims to have 20% of female leaders in top management by 2020.

“Progress is tracked in our business plan as a metric to hit once a quarter for all offices. I appreciate how it would institutionalise the positive change and put a tangible KPI against the cause, so it won’t end up as just a ‘feel good’ programme for ‘virtue signalling’ sake,” he explains.

Beyond well-meaning initiatives, however, culture is a hurdle. Asai sees that in Japan. Compared to the US, where he lived for several years, he observes that Japanese are more reserved and reticent to air their views on social issues.

“People may be supportive privately, but aren’t prone to open declarations, so it’s hard to see ‘waves of change’ on the surface of things in society,” he shares.

That said, everyone whom Campaign Asia interviewed express optimism that improvement is on its way. Perhaps the next 10 years will be the time for it. After all, a lot can change in a decade, as the last one showed us.

Campaign Asia

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