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Mike Grehan: Hi, and welcome to what is frequently known as Live on 65, but every now and again—when I can’t get somebody to do my bidding and come and see me in New York—I have to go and see them and it becomes Live off 65. So here I am today with Acronym’s very own David Shen.
David Shen: Hello.
Mike Grehan: David, great to see you.
David Shen: Great to see you, Mike.
Mike Grehan: You and I have been on a bit of an Asia tour this year.
David Shen: Yes, we have.
Mike Grehan: Yeah, we’ve done Hong Kong, Bangkok, and now here we are at Acronym’s home in Asia here in Singapore.
David Shen: Absolutely.
Mike Grehan: First of all, I guess what we need to do is establish … I like to do this in the first place, find out who is the person behind the man, about your background, and then we’ll talk about what it is exactly that Acronym does here in Asia.
David Shen: Sure.
Mike Grehan: You live back here in Singapore now, but you did tell me that you’ve lived in various parts of the planet? Where did you live, and then how did you end up back in Singapore?
David Shen: I traveled around a little bit as a child. I grew up in what is now known as Chennai, back then Madras, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi. I’ve lived around Europe in Madrid and Vienna, but I’ve been back in Singapore, and Singapore has been my home for the last 15 years.
Mike Grehan: Fifteen years.
David Shen: So it’s been a good ride.
Mike Grehan: That’s because your father had to move around, yes?
David Shen: Exactly, for his work. Sure.
Mike Grehan: Again, something else that you were telling me, which is fairly unusual … When I’m talking to people, and I’ve been in this industry for a long time, as you know, but usually when I’m talking to people about when they come into this industry, they’ve either come in from a technical background that they’ve had from some time or they’ve worked in advertising. You just went straight into digital, right?
David Shen: Exactly. Yeah.
Mike Grehan: Tell me how that happened.
David Shen: Many of the people who we’ve worked with as well have jumped directly into digital in one form or another. It may have been from something as basic as copying out URLs manually back in the day or doing keyword research manually back in the day.
Mike Grehan: As you had to.
David Shen: As we had to in the mid 2000s. Back then in the Singapore office, there were only two people from the search-engine side that we were working with, and today, seven years, eight years down the road, they’ve grown to 300, 400-sized teams.
Mike Grehan: Wow.
David Shen: So we’ve seen tremendous growth in digital in Asia.
Mike Grehan: I have to say, when I did my session yesterday, I mentioned to the audience that I’m celebrating 20 years. Next year, I’ll be celebrating 20 years in digital, so when I came online, David was probably running around in short pants (laughing). So was it search? For you, it was always going to be search? Yeah, that was the passion for you, yes?
David Shen: Yeah, absolutely.
Mike Grehan: Did you do SEO, paid search first?
David Shen: I started off with paid search. We started off crawling websites to extract landing pages for paid search so we could match things exactly to the SKU numbers they were supposed to be, all the way down to SEO. I got involved in SEO pretty shortly into my career in search simply because it was something that was still pretty mystical in about 2005, 2006, and so it was definitely an area of growth and something very interesting, as well.
Mike Grehan: Acronym’s been around for a long time, but the founder of Acronym started back in … He came online in 1995.
David Shen: Mm-hmm.
Mike Grehan: I think Acronym has been around for about 16 years as a brand. When did Acronym start in Asia?
David Shen: Acronym started in 2006 with Farah. Farah Sadiq set up the office here. As you know, now she’s the GM of the Europe office.
Mike Grehan: Yep.
David Shen: Yeah, so we started eight years ago, and at that point, it was one of the first few search agencies in Singapore in a growing market.
Mike Grehan: What kind of clients were you working with then?
David Shen: Back then, because a lot of people ask, “Why Singapore? Why not China? Why not Hong Kong?” but back then in 2006, our policy had always been to go where your clients are, and our clients’ regional headquarters were based in Singapore at that time. As our clients’ headquarters shift or as our clients grow, then that’s how we structure our expansion organically around the region.
Mike Grehan: That’s how you ended up in Singapore. Is there anything which is distinctly different about doing search in Asia than it would be back in the US, which is where the operation started?
David Shen: Well, I wouldn’t know where to start.
Mike Grehan: Really?
David Shen: I mean, one of the key things in Asia is to remember how fragmented the market is and to remember that if you want to run a search campaign, for example, in Southeast Asia, Southeast Asia as a concept is … It means that you would need to localize languages for Thai, Vietnamese, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia.
Another interesting thing to understand is, as each of these countries came on board and adopted the Internet, they were at various stages of how content was perceived on the Internet. While in Singapore and Hong Kong we may be used to reading text, and if you look at the content consumption in Indonesia and Vietnam, when they came online, it was all video, so they’re most used to watching a video review of a hotel, for example, rather than reading something on OTA.
Mike Grehan: I guess it’s kind of like when I first moved to the US and people used to say to me, “You guys in Europe,” and I had to say, “There isn’t a country called Europe,” and when they would talk to me about optimizing for Europe and I would be going, “Be that for Polish people or for Norwegian people or for Spanish people?” It’s pretty much the same kind of thing. I guess one of the target areas now, because it is becoming so popular, is China.
David Shen: Exactly.
Mike Grehan: But again, when you talk about China, you can’t really talk about China as just being one place because that’s like a multitude of small countries inside of China, yeah?
David Shen: Yeah, and where we talk…even with regards to something as specific as search-engine marketing, like a PPC, a paid-search campaign, for example, the one interesting thing to know about China is, as opposed to having a major player like Google, Baidu’s market share is actually shared with many other search engines. So we don’t have a number-one player who takes up 80%, 90% market share. You have Baidu, and then you have the growth of the secondary engines like 360 Search, like Sogou, Soso in the rest of the regions.
The interesting thing is to look at the research and understand that the growth of market share of many of these secondary engines is actually fueled by what is termed the Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities. The Tier 1 cities, they’re classified by a various series of ranking factors. The Tier 1 cities tend to adopt Baidu. So when planning a digital campaign, our strategists take these into account. Is the audience growing from the Tier 1 cities? Are we targeting them? And there is a lot of wealth in Tier 2 and 3 cities. Are we targeting those cities instead? It’s a very interesting dynamic and balance that needs to be reached.
Mike Grehan: Yeah. We don’t have to do that in the US. It’s Google or Bing. That’s about it, but when I came online, there were about 26 search engines that you could work with. So here we are. We’re live in Singapore. I’m with David Shen, who runs the operation for Acronym here. We’re going to take a short break, and then we can come back and talk about the kind of work that Acronym is doing with their clients here in Asia.
Here we are again with a special kind of in-house feature. It’s Live off 65. We’re in Asia in Singapore at Acronym’s headquarters with David Shen, who’s general manager here. David, you’ve just explained quite a lot about how dramatically different it is working in China, for instance, and looking at Asia and having to understand that it’s just like this series of different countries. There’s a lot that you have to take into account, and you can’t just say, “We’ll go and do business in Asia.”
David Shen: Exactly.
Mike Grehan: It’s not as simple as that.
David Shen: Yeah.
Mike Grehan: Tell me about the clients that we’re working with and where Acronym specializes in the various Asian markets that we’re in. Which clients are we working with, and where do we specialize?
David Shen: Sure. We have several specialties. We work with a lot of travel and hospitality clients. We work with a lot of hotel clients, and we also work with clients who are in financial services as well as in tech B-to-B. At a glance, people may not see a direct relationship between a hotel client and a tech B-to-B client, but one of the interesting things to note, especially in this region, is that the kind of initiatives that we run for these clients are similar to the extent that we are measured based on performance marketing, KPIs. So while our industry team for travel and our industry team for tech have specific knowledge of their own industries, where both come together is that these are all very performance driven, and all of it comes back down to the data. It comes back down to the numbers.
Mike Grehan: And optimizing around that data. Again, from a search point of view more than anything else, you mentioned it is entirely different with major players in China, for instance. Is it different actually running an SEO campaign here? Is it different running a paid-search campaign than it would be in the West, for instance?
David Shen: Absolutely. It comes back down to the context of each of the countries in Southeast Asia. For example, many of the clients that we work with face significant challenges in running SEO initiatives in Asia simply because the production cost of creating in-language websites is so tremendously larger than creating a website in English and then adapting it for the various regions where the English changes with each region.
It’s very similar to the kind of campaigns that Acronym runs in Europe for search-engine optimization where the nuances of the language, even English, have to be accounted for when talking about localization. The process is also more challenging when running in-language SEO initiatives. First of all, we have to create a baseline and understand the product and then, after that, do the in-language research as opposed to simply a translation project.
Mike Grehan: Exactly, exactly. Tell me a little about technology. Obviously, I know a lot about Acronym and the fact that Selina, who is the CEO, is also the resident kind of data scientist, but we do have this remarkable technology in Keyword Objects. Can you explain just a little bit about how you use that here in Asia with your clients and what makes it better?
David Shen: Of course. You know Mike, this is something that … a trend that we’re starting to see in the last two years especially. We’ve seen customers and clients ask us about our proprietary technology, the reporting solutions that we can provide, the forecasting solutions we can provide for a paid search, but really in the last one or two years, the Asian market has evolved to a point where it becomes worthwhile for clients to start investing in this technology.
So in the past year, we’ve seen a significant take-up rate of people who are using the Keyword Objects platform, and they are using this to answer questions within the organization, like simple questions that any marketer should know. Where are my customers coming from? What are my customers interested in? What are my customers doing once they reach my page? It really comes back down to intent marketing to present customers with the messaging and the right kind of content at that point in time.
Mike Grehan: I was just going to say, I guess probably one of the differences also that I tend to notice, particularly when you’re working with a client like Four Seasons, for instance, where you’re working corporately with an organization, but you’re also working with the individual properties to give those properties an opportunity to be able to look at only the data that they’re interested in and, at the same time, to give corporate an opportunity to look across the entire enterprise and see exactly where they’re being successful.
David Shen: Exactly, and the level of customization that we can provide for the Keyword Objects platform is really the strength of the whole system because we can roll up data from various regions. We can slice it based on how we need to see it, and more importantly, we can slice it how our clients need to see it. For example, if they ask us, “I want to see only my China business,” and this is a dashboard solution we can present to them, and for each of the individual hotels in China, each of them can have a customized solution that is the most relevant to them at that point in time.
Mike Grehan: Just give me a quick example now of the kind of clients that you’re working with, the brands that you’re working with right now.
David Shen: We work with Four Seasons, of course, in Asia. We work with Millennium and Copthorne, as well. The Fairmont/Raffles/Swissotel group.
Mike Grehan: So hotels are a big thing here, yes?
David Shen: Of course.
Mike Grehan: Yeah.
David Shen: We work with Trend Micro for tech B-to-B and video, as well. For financial services, we work with Aberdeen Asset Management as well as AIA Insurance.
Mike Grehan: So there’s a fairly broad range of clients that you have here.
David Shen: Absolutely.
Mike Grehan: That’s David Shen giving you a bit of an example of the kind of work that Acronym does in Asia. One thing that I can tell you, David knows the best restaurants in this city. He knows where to drink the best whiskey. He wants to do business with you, but first go out and have a few drinks. Have dinner with David. David, that was great. Thank you very much for introducing us to Acronym Asia.
David Shen: Thank you very much, Mike.