Tencent’s SY Lau: A Malaysian who took China by storm
By Harmandar ‘Ham’ Singh April 17, 2015
- First exec from China-based company to receive prestigious Cannes award
- ‘Media will expand to touch almost everything, everywhere’
TENCENT Holdings Ltd, the Shenzhen-based company most popular in this part of the world for its WeChat app, is the largest Internet service provider in Asia, with a market capitalisation of US$172 billion as of March 20, 2015.
It delivers value-added Internet, mobile/ telecommunications services and online advertising.
In 2006, when S.Y. Lau joined Tencent’s senior management team, his focus was on driving corporate growth, with the specific mission of overseeing Tencent Online Media Group (OMG). Today, OMG is one of the largest media companies in the world, with a portfolio that includes online information and entertainment products.
He made enough of an impact that in January this year, Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity announced that the Cannes Lions 2015 Media Person of the Year Award will go to Lau.
He is the first executive from a China-based company to receive the award, whose previous winners include Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google; Mark Zuckerberg, founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Facebook; Richard Plepler, CEO of HBO; and Salar Kamangar, CEO of YouTube.
In 2011, he was honoured globally as one of ‘The World’s 21 Most Influential People in Marketing and Media’ by New York based Advertising Age. In 2014, he was appointed an Honorary Ambassador to the City of Brisbane, Australia.
Lau also happens to be Malaysian. Here, he speaks to Marketing Magazine.
MM: To say we in Malaysia are proud of you is an understatement. Can you share with readers your early childhood and where you studied?
Lau: 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 Nanyang Press for more than 25 years before he passed away at an early age due to illness. My mom was an excellent tailor, but I guess my sisters and I would remember her most as a disciplinarian who instilled the spirit of inquisitiveness and competitiveness within us during our formative years.
I studied in St John’s Institution [in Kuala Lumpur] before graduating with a major in Mass Communications from one of the local universities.
After working for 10 years or so, I obtained my MBA from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and graduated from Harvard Business School upon completing its pinnacle advanced management programme.
MM: Did you go to China by accident or was that part of your plan for a long time? How did it all begin?
Lau: Well, it was both by accident and somewhat part of the plan. Coming from a traditional Chinese family, my dad was 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, [Communist Party leader] Deng Xiao Peng had declared a vision for a market economy.
I was fluent in both English and Mandarin, 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 [advertising agency] Leo Burnett. [Lau took a job with McCann Erickson to handle its Nestle account in China].
MM: Malaysia has been trying to kick off its digital economy vision since the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC Malaysia) was launched way back in 1996. How do you see the larger picture for this vision and how can it become a reality?
Lau (pic): I think Malaysia had the vision a long time ago, but unfortunately, this vision was not implemented to the best of its potential.
At the end of the day, the Internet today has become a basic infrastructure, and it should be discussed at a national policy level.
When I attended the recent BoAo Economic Forum, I had the privilege to meet and dine with [fomer Malaysian prime minister] Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. He patiently listened to my story of how the private sector got involved in formulating a national policy for Internet Plus in China.
As you know, one of the most significant characteristics in the development of China’s digital economy exists in its integrating with various industries at a high speed. In China, we call this procedure ‘Internet Plus’ – the Internet plus the retail industry, plus the real estate industry, plus the manufacturing industry, and of course, plus the media industry.
But the basis of every item mentioned above is an integrated national strategy and the reliable construction of infrastructure facilities; which depends on the government’s investment and commitment.
China has already revealed that Internet Plus will become a policy for the country, alongside another national strategy for the manufacturing industry, ‘Made in China 2025.’ A government fund of RMB 40 billion (about US$6.38 billion) has already been put in place for investment in China’s emerging industries.
Meanwhile, the ‘Broadband China Project’ is being carried out. It will help to make broadband coverage in China reach over 250 million users.
MM: Where do you see Tencent in two years’ time and why?
Lau: Since Internet companies are always impacted by the combined forces of technology and users, I just want to talk about some opportunities that I see as solid and realistic here:
Connecting the last billion
First of all, it took 20 years for the Internet to really take hold in China, turning 47.9% of the total population into Internet users.
For the other half of the population who are not yet using the Internet, a lot of them are elderly, young children, or those who cannot afford the necessary equipment.
To plug those people into the Internet world with easy and inexpensive access will be our major mission in the near term.
I think mobile phones are the most viable option to achieve this goal. Through what Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab calls “connecting the last billion,” I believe Tencent will be capable of enabling the development of China even more.
Media of the ‘Mega Web’
Actually, I call this idea of a fully interconnected world ‘the world of the Mega Web,’ in which the role of the media will greatly expand.
The media is already connecting users to content, and it will further connect us to many more things: More devices, more context, more people.
Media will expand to touch almost everything, everywhere. When connectivity expands to that level, [the] singularity will be triggered. The information that we have will become ‘intellectual’ as big data accumulates, interconnects and becomes available to even more devices.
This expanded access to intelligence is the basic information we act upon, machines act upon, entire smart cities act upon.
The future: Connect, call out, make the whole community answer
When data itself becomes both interpretive and predictive, a judgment like ‘something needs to be done to improve this situation’ will more frequently be made by media rather than people, and more insightfully than we can imagine now.
More importantly, once everyone is interconnected, we will be able to reach out to every member of society, in every remote part of the globe, and call for collective actions to solve problems both locally and globally.
Currently, our mission is to support the Internet Plus Action Plan of China. We are ready to cooperate with the partners and potential partners coming from different vertical industries on a strategic level, so that together we can provide better O2O (online-to-offline) commerce, online payment experiences, and smart livelihood services for our users.
We see opportunity around the world, whether this is for our own apps like WeChat, or for partnership and investment in Western businesses.
I think WeChat is possibly the most recognisable brand for those in the United States or United Kingdom. Tencent also supports other famous brands around the world in markets like gaming and social. Companies like Epic Games and Riot Games are owned by Tencent, while we have our own gaming IP (intellecrual property) that is successful in China.
MM: What do you miss most about Malaysia?
Lau: I miss two things the most. Firstly, the assortment of local hawker food, be it roti canai [unleavened bread], nasi biryani [a type of rice pilaf], or char koay teow [a noodle dish]. And the good thing about it is that these authentic local delicacies are still around.
The second thing I miss a lot is the real feeling of walking around town safely, which I think is increasingly fading in KL (Kuala Lumpur).
I remember when I was studying in St John’s, I was boarding in the school, and I used to be able to jog around Bukit Nanas at 6am every day without having to be worried about safety. Now, unfortunately, street safety is becoming a major concern for many of my Malaysian friends and relatives. Not enough is being done in this area.
The above is an excerpt of an article which will appear in Marketing Magazine and is reprinted here first with its kind permission. SY Lau will be a speaker at the 4th Malaysian CMO Conference on April 21. Go to www.marketingmagazine.com.my/cmo2015
for more info.
Tencent’s SY Lau named Cannes Lions ‘Media Person of the Year’
Tencent ups the ante with WeChat, looking to build ecosystem
Internet usage, mobility altering Asia Pacific online trends: Forrester
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