How one Malaysian took China by storm!

08 April 2015

( - Known globally as the WeChat Company, Tencent is the largest internet service provider in Asia, with a market capitalization, as of March 20, 2015, of USD 172 billion. Tencent’s mission is to enhance the quality of human life through Internet services. It delivers value-added Internet, mobile/ telecom services and online advertising, in order to fulfil the strategic goal of providing users with “one-stop online lifestyle services”. 

In 2006, when SY Lau joined Tencent as one of the senior management team he focused on driving corporate growth, with the specific mission of overseeing Tencent's Online Media Group (OMG). Today, OMG is one of the largest media companies in the world, with a portfolio that includes a matrix of online information and entertainment products. As the market leader in China, OMG’s products and services provide penetration into a market numbering in the hundreds of millions of active users every month. SY’s accomplishments at OMG have led to numerous honours. 
We sat down to talk to the star speaker of this year’s Chief Marketing Officers (CMO) Conference...
SY, to say we in Malaysia are proud of you is an understatement. Can you share with readers your early childhood in Malaysia, where you studied and how you eventually joined the workforce? Your early days in advertising...

I came from an average family and was raised by parents who believed strongly in traditional Chinese parenting. I am the eldest in the family with two younger sisters. My dad worked in the Nan Yang Press for more than 25 years before he passed away at an earlier age due to illness. My mom was an excellent tailor, but I guess my sisters and I would remember her most as a disciplinarian that instilled the spirit of inquisitiveness and competitiveness within us during our foundational years. I studied in St. John’s Institution before graduating with a major in Mass Communication from one of the local universities. Subsequently, after working for ten years or so, I obtained my MBA from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and graduated - from Harvard Business School upon completing their pinnacle AMP program.

My first job was with McCann Erickson as a trainee Account Executive. How did I get the job? When I was in the final year of my undergraduate studies, I decided to conduct a field research on the Malaysian Advertising Industry using collections of communication theories. The research effort opened up doors for me to conduct field work with more than ten leading advertising agencies in Malaysia. I also got to do face-to-face interviews with the leaders of the top agencies. I remember that I met with Noel Darby, Phil Fiebig, Peter Beaumont, Lau Peng Kai and Austen Zecha, just to name a few. It was a six month research project which produced a thesis entitled “The Professionalism in Account Servicing in the Malaysian Advertising Industry.” A month before my graduation, I received six job offers from the top 4As agencies, and Noel Derby offered to pay 1000 ringgit to have my work translated into English for use by his company. I chose McCann because of two reasons. I strongly believed in the motto of the company, Truth Well Told, and, more importantly, Ong Thiam Heong impressed me as a sincere business leader. In fact, he was a great mentor during the foundational years of my career. I remember he would take the  time and effort to correct every single report that I have wrote, not only the business context of it, but the language part as well. He was the living example of the 7 habits of Highly Effective People.

Did you go to China by accident or was that part of your plan for a long time? How did it all begin?

Well it was both by accident and somewhat part of the plan. Coming from a traditional Chinese family, my dad had a great influence to me with regards to traditional Chinese knowledge. China  at that time was not really open despite the fact that a decade earlier Deng Xiao Ping had declared a vision for a market economy. I was fluent in both English and Chinese and I thought that if I had an opportunity to venture overseas, China would certainly be my first choice. I remember when the opportunity came, I was already working with Leo Burnet. One day during lunch, I met with Ong Thiam Hong and he told me that McCann Hong Kong was in trouble. One of their biggest international clients, Nestle, had a new Managing Director for Greater China, and she was about to fire McCann. The new MD was Leong Ming Chee, a highly respected Nestle veteran from Malaysia, with a remarkable track record in one of the most significant markets in Asia.

So the McCann regional management team was frantically looking for a lead person to solve this problem. Apparently Ong had given my name to the regional team based on the fact that I used to be one of the well-respected account leaders on the Nestle account in Malaysia. I remember flying to Singapore for an interview and the next thing I knew I found myself attending the Nestle global account management conference in Hong Kong chaired by Peter Bear, the Global Account Director. I spent the next three years stabilizing and building the Nestle business for McCann, by nurturing and building a professional local team from scratch. We ended up winning more than a dozen new business accounts for both the China and Hong Kong markets. During this time I won the prestigious Milo Account for China and the media Agency of Record (AOR) , which was a first in Asia.

What lessons can young advertising, marketing and media professionals learn from your experiences and work ethic ? 

China is a huge market, and I have seen many business professionals cutting corners here and there in the name of responding to pressure. Irrespective of industry, I think business people today could excel more if they were more conscious of focusing on leadership led by principles. I respect men and women of integrity irrespective of their social status, social status, fame or wealth; they have won my respect and admiration. More specifically, the business people that I admire the most are those that practice principle centered leadership. This reminds me of an advertising campaign that I saw recently on CNBC; I think it is for a bank from Singapore. The story goes; a father was bringing his son to a fun fair. As the father was purchasing the ticket to enter the circus, the ticket seller said that it would cost a dollar for an adult ticket and half price for children under four. The father then asked for two tickets. The ticket seller appeared  to be shocked and asked curiously  about the age of the boy, to which the father replied five. The ticket seller than said you could have told me he was four and I would have let you in without knowing. The father, replied, while holding his son’s hands, “Well, you may not have known, but he would’ve.”

Today, we live in a world where few people believe that principles really do define who we are. It is my wish that we have more principle driven executives in the business world.

Share with us about the leadership talks you have given across the world at Harvard Business School, Stanford University, Oxford University… 

In recent years, I have been honored to be invited to deliver a number of speeches at some of the world’s leading universities. The main topics of the speeches  explored the development of China’s digital economy environment and Tencent’s role in that development.

In 2012 at Stanford, taking into consideration that the number of Chinese web users has increased slowly since June of 2008, I predicted that the demographic dividend (the organic growth brought by the growing number of Chinese internet users) is going to be cashed out. So I proposed that targeted advertising placement and personalized content creation would be the key to break the bottleneck. I believe that mobile media can not only help advertisers with product promotion, brand communication and customer relationship management, but also with the integration and optimization of business models, which can become a new marketing platform in the long run. Future digital marketing will go personal: shifting from media buying to user buying; go richer: developing a technology-driven creative team and raising the proportion of developers; and go offline: powering the integrated marketing model with O2O, and achieve closed loop marketing from advertising to sales.

At the Said Business School of Oxford University last year, I shared opportunities brought about by the growth of mobile Internet access across China; we see opportunities at three different levels: the consumer level, the industrial level, and then extending to the level of the whole economy. The mobile Internet meets the pent up demand of Chinese people for increased and upgraded levels of consumption, facilitates a long called-for industry transformation, as well as expediting the liberalization of the national economy. In short, the Internet plays the role of an enabler to transform the new thinking of sustainable development into reality under what we call the New Normal. The second-mover advantage triggered by the Internet industry can be summarized by examining two different perspectives: industrial and geographical. Very simply put, the internet has changed the lives of people in China in profound and meaningful ways. The Internet provides not only a new way of thinking and doing, but a feasible methodology for achieving China’s economic goals. The internet is not just a resource; it is a means to turn dreams into economic reality.  

SY will join 27 other speakers and panelists at the 4th Malaysian CMO Conference in KL: 
Date:             April 21, 2015 (Tuesday)  
Time:             8.30am - 5.30pm  
Venue:          Grand Ballroom, Sime Darby Convention Centre,  
Jalan Bukit Kiara, Kuala Lumpur  
Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or download PDF here to attend. 



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