May 292012

The default challenge tends to be one of two ice-breakers;‘Why China?’, or ‘Why Singapore?’.

Then follows an interesting brainstorm that probably should have happened somewhere back up the road and ends with even less clarity than it started. The key point tends to be a wish to expand to AsiaPac but a stumbling block often manifests in the shape of a lack of definition of this region. Go here for a brief aside on that point. The point is there’s a gut enthusiasm to move into the China market but Singapore is thrown into the mix as an option as the archetypal easy place to do business in Asia which just so happens to also be a thriving biotech hub. But the question is shouldn’t a China entry be founded on more than a gut feel… there’s often a sense that even so long after opening-up a kind of gold fever persists as a feature of foreign direct investment in China. Then again, wouldn’t a successful entrepreneur in a niche professional services field in the pharma sector pay heed to his instincts given the continued double-figure growth rates in China. Especially as so often the motivation is on the back of serendipitous account opportunity with its attendant security of – at least in the short term – likely cashflows.

But still there’s the question, why China – what about India, Brazil, Russia, Turkey, the Middle East, or the still vibrant Southeast Asian markets – all closer to home geographically, economically solid bets and all to greater or lesser degrees far less culturally removed. What is with the often sudden-onset allure of China?

In reality it often tends to be a response to fast-moving events on a key account; client corporate strategic refocusing on China cascades down from the blue to directly impact on the product-market, with implications even for the well-oiled machine that is the global publication planning account. The potential opinion leadership qualities of key Chinese investigators are abruptly realized, the brand director is packed off to Shanghai and before you know it your global capabilities, international KOL-management abilities, global infrastructure and knowledge of Chinese peer-review journals is all coming under scrutiny. This sudden global contraction can expose the agency, and with so many clients’ emerging market strategies still in a state of flux this can create a tension between proven abilities and questions over the ability to step up in the short-term.

So just how much at risk are specialist agencies without a presence in Asia or specifically in China? Here we risk getting into a definitional game of what is a specialist agency, a game in which the big groups’ geographic reach and networks at least on paper you might think hand them a straightforward win. Certainly for a specialist agency servicing ethical pharma with its focus on evidence-based communications, defining and redefining its mission, staying relevant and, just as importantly communicating that relevance, is an ongoing challenge. The current environment is one of unrelenting turbulence caused by the jostling for position and consolidation of competitors, and the ebb and flow of different operating models in the bow waves of big pharma’s never-ending regional restructures. Considering, say, pre-launch key stakeholder below-the-line communications it’s certainly the case that there is considerable clinical trials activity in China but this does not necessarily translate into a need for on-the-ground strategic publications support in China at least immediately. But… by not being there it does provide an open door for the big players. Not that it means they can do your job but clients in China are inclined to value the security of a brand over the unknown. A first step then is clearly to work with your client and make it clear you are prepared to commit but help ease their concerns by demonstrating the short-term lack of impact such a shift is likely to have. A medium-term strategic plan both for the onsite management of the account and for the wider agency business implications is called for.

Following your client and going to China for a share of market per se are clearly very differentiated strategies but it would be a waste not to examine the broader opportunities of expansion given the situation. While the market currently is more traditional above-the-line advertising-dominant, there are – given the Chinese take-up of mobile web and willingness to enthusiastically engage – fast-growing opportunities in digital media and dialogic communications. But even agencies with a relatively well established foothold in Asia can become unnerved by making a definitive shift of focus to China. Inevitably though, just as Europe is not going to be a satisfactory long-term base for servicing your Shanghai clients, neither will clients accept that a regional six-hour flight from Singapore constitutes reasonable locality, however special your specialty.

Next up, how to start up.