From Russia to Vietnam, Singapore and beyond: How to achieve entrepreneurial media success
Early Bird, discounted tickets are available until 15 August. Click here to register for FIPP Asia-Pacific or contact Claire Jones or Natalie Butcher if you are interested in discussing a discounted custom package for a delegation (5+ people) to the conference.
Tell us about your early career and how it laid the foundations for an international career…
I started my publishing career with Gruner+Jahr in Hamburg, Germany, where I was subsequently appointed to head up the creation of our operations in Russia. So in 1997 I moved from Hamburg and Paris to Moscow and we started with GEO magazine, printed in Russian. That was obviously a single platform at that time, we focused on the print editions with marketing and promotional activities – and all the usual issues that you deal with when you launch a print title.
In 1999 I joined Condé Nast, which had just launched Vogue Russia. It was looking to expand its portfolio, so the business needed someone to head up its operations there. Again, it was all paper at that time. We launched GQ magazine in 2000 and then Architectural Digest in 2001. I was with Condé Nast until 2003, and then moved to Independent Media, which was a joint venture with Hearst in Moscow, where I oversaw the luxury portfolio of magazines and newspapers. Even at this time, in 2004-05, it was still a very traditional print and paper-based operation, although every magazine had its website. The main online revenues were coming from the daily newspapers’ sites and Cosmopolitan in the glossy magazine area. I stayed with Independent Media until the end of 2007 and in 2008 became a shareholder in a company called Partners Media Group, which is a publishing company in Kazakhstan – we publish six international licence editions and only recently started to seriously develop our online presence.
So what brought you to Southeast Asia – and how did you begin to exploit the online and digital offerings?
In 2009 I left Europe and set up my own company in Vietnam. We again started with print – launching the Luxury Guide in 2010 followed by the Robb Report, both printed in Vietnamese. From there we expanded the publications as our anchor brands, to Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. In our markets advertising budgets began merging from traditional media to digital only in 2014, and that’s when we thought that if we didn’t do something quick we were going to miss this train. Like most traditional publishers, we were sticking to the formula of putting our print publications online, which was not really working. Instead, we needed to do something truly digital if we wanted a) to be successful and b) to learn fast enough in order to keep up with digital development – which was much faster than anything we had experienced in print before.
When we looked for a strategy for what we could do here in Southeast Asia, we came across Buro 24/7. From my years in Moscow I knew Mira Duma, who by then had already launched Buro in seven countries, including Russia and was doing extremely well. Mira herself, as a personality, as a fashion entrepreneur, had high brand awareness even here in Southeast Asia. So many young people in Singapore, Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur knew Mira Duma and were following her on Facebook or Instagram. Our first conversation about a Singapore edition of Buro 24/7 was in December 2014. In February 2015 we signed a licence agreement, and in May 2015 we launched Buro247.sg, followed by Buro247.my two months later.
What would you say has been the one key learning to your success in the region – what is the one piece of advice you would give to others trying to enter Asian and Southeast Asian markets?
Of course, you need to understand the local market and its specifics. It takes some time to analyse the numbers but in the end you have to try and find out what really moves each market, which topics resonate.
At times, these are small details, but in some areas the differences are stark and you can make mistakes if you don’t understand this. I don’t say that I haven’t made mistakes, I definitely have but, one big advantage of operating in developing markets is that they are much more forgiving than well-developed markets, such as Europe and the US. Here, you can learn as you go along. As long as you stay open to the idea that you might need to change something because it’s not working, and if you are not stubborn and insistent on a concept, then that is a huge opportunity.
What other challenges have you faced and how have you made those into opportunities?
It’s absolutely key in the countries that we operate in to find the right people. And it’s a challenge. It’s always difficult to find people. Every entrepreneur will tell you the same – that their market is special and one of the big problems is to find good people. In our markets, as in other developing markets, it’s more challenging to find professional people because the professional level is not there and you just don’t have the pool of people to choose from. In some cases mentality is different, for example around building a career. So it becomes more challenging to find people with the grit and the stamina and the ambition to work hard. I learned is that it can be extremely valuable to bring in international people with different backgrounds, because this will really help develop a strong local team. Expats will often attract local talent because local talent prefers to work for international companies. So if you can show them that you have an internationally organised office and team, you already have an advantage.
In your FIPP Asia-Pacific talk you will discuss ‘letting digital set the pace’. Could you just elaborate on that?
Well, I just think back to how our office atmosphere changed when the digital team moved in. It became loud, people were talking across the table and exchanging information continuously. It obviously has an immediate effect on the rest of your team, when they see how fast-paced digital is compared with a monthly print magazine for example. It creates internal competition. Everyone wants to be the first – be faster, have the better interview, the more interesting piece. And in sales it’s similar. With digital you have a different advertising sales rhythm. The lead-time shrinks, your “production time” is reduced to a few hours as compared to the lengthy process of laying out a magazine, going through prepress, printing and all the stages of delivering your publication to newsstands or your subscribers. It had an interesting and positive effect on our company when we turned to digital. Today half my team in Singapore is digital, half my revenue in Singapore is digital. So it’s already 50/50.
FIPP Asia-Pacific Early Bird, discounted tickets are available until 15 August. Click here to register for FIPP Asia-Pacific or contact Claire Jones or Natalie Butcher if you are interested in discussing a discounted custom package for delegations (5+ people) to the conference.