Wayne Arnold, co-founder and Global CEO of digital maketing agency Lowe Profero speaks to Focus Asean about the bloc’s emerging digital economy and the political stumbling blocks it faces
By Joana Maria Tacken
How is the digital landscape developing within Asean?
I’m encouraged by the state of the digital market in Asean, which is growing slowly but steadily. Nevertheless, words are still louder than action, and unfortunately digital budgets are still lagging behind all the talk. The region has woken up to the need to invest more in digital, and some markets, such as Singapore and Malaysia, are leading the way. But we’re still seeing markets with huge potential – for example Indonesia – dragging their feet.
Which less-developed countries have the greatest potential to take the lead in years to come?
The nation with the most potential is obviously Indonesia, with nearly 250 million people, and with the opportunity to embrace digital connectivity. I’m also excited to see developments in the Greater Mekong Region – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and particularly Vietnam. These countries will be the areas of opportunity in the future.
To what extent are young people influencing and shaping the Asean digital landscape?
As with digital markets worldwide, young people are the drivers and the heartbeat of digital uptake and revolution. We’re constantly looking to the next generation for the uptake of new technologies, and to disseminate ideas and products quickly and efficiently through mobile and social media. We’re moving to a world where we all need to adapt our skills for our businesses. In order to survive, the next generation is going to have to be the most adaptable generation ever – that’s a huge challenge, but also an opportunity.
What is the biggest challenge for Asean’s digital economy?
I see two main digital challenges for the region: at the top and at the bottom of the hierarchy. At an executive level, there’s a lack of digital experience. Conversely, at the entry level, we seem to be lacking strong digital talent – at least in the numbers needed to drive opportunity, and to change perceptions. Our educational systems and internal talent programmes for fostering marketing skills are not delivering.
What threats do the digital economy present to Asean countries – in particular less-open governments in countries such as Thailand and Vietnam?
The biggest challenge is limitations on freedom of speech. The web doesn’t respect geographical boundaries and censorship. I think in future we’ll look back with great amusement at the efforts of political regimes to censor digital communications. It’s a constant cat-and-mouse game in which those with the will and technical expertise always find ways around attempts to block the free passage of information. The internet is the ultimate democratiser, and non-democratic governments will always struggle against its influence.
By opening up, Myanmar has started to transform into a highly attractive country for tourism and investment. What is Myanmar’s potential for creating a strong digital economy?
Currently the internet in Myanmar remains slow, unstable and only affordable to less than 1% of a population of more than 60 million. This combines with problems associated with freedom of speech, mobile access and basic standards of living. The potential for digital growth is really dependent on the appetite of the government to tackle these basic infrastructure issues.
How do you see Asean’s digital industry developing over the next five years?
I see growth taking place across the region slowly and steadily. There’s a unique complexity to the region – it covers so many distinct and very different territories – and the best we can do is look towards trends in more digitally developed markets. In Europe and the US, digital media is on the way to becoming a leading marketing channel. I can see the same thing happening in Asean, but the timing will definitely be staggered, with some markets taking more time than others to mature.
Have you experienced any problems doing business online in Asean – for example involving online freedom of speech?
No, nothing specifically. We’ve been in the region for more than a decade now, so we’ve had time to learn and adjust to the unique conditions that exist in certain countries. I believe that as long as you’re aware of boundaries, and you show them due respect, you’ll generally be fine. There have been times we’ve turned down work or refused to comment because a topic is politically too sensitive, but we haven’t experienced any major problems.