Taking Google Malaysia to the next level
By Edwin Yapp May 30, 2019
- Has seen many changes in eight years; adaptation the key to survival
- Claims to commit to ideation, information sharing, economic opportunities
THE name Google is synonymous with celebrating diversity and giving opportunities to deserving individuals, and in Malaysia’s case, this fell on the first employee hired by Google Malaysia, Marc Woo (pic).
In October 2018, local boy Woo was chosen to helm Google’s Malaysian operations, a high order indeed. For about eight years, the Malaysian chapter of the search giant was led by its first country head, Sajith Sivanandan, who has since moved to head of payments, access and next billion users for Google India.
Woo’s primary responsibility is to oversee Google’s sales and business development operations in Malaysia, determining the business strategy for its local offices as well as partnerships for Google’s products.
As an employee – or Googler as they are known – No 1, Woo has gone through many iterations of change within the company, and you could say that he has been there and done that. Prior to his appointment, Woo was industry head for the e-commerce, travel and financial services business for several years.
He first started with Google Malaysia as an account strategist, where his job entailed ensuring that the digital marketing campaigns done with Google performed well. Despite having worked in a number of jobs within Google Malaysia, Woo says that there are a lot of new challenges facing him and the local Google organisation he leads today.
“The largest change we’re dealing with is that we’ve more complexity now than before,” he tells Digital News Asia (DNA) in an exclusive interview. “But I say this in a good way because as the company grows, we have to figure out how to diversify revenue, how to come up with better products and how to serve customers better.”
In the early days, Woo’s challenges centred on doing everything from sales to product development. It was, as he recounts, an “all hands on board” kind of culture.
“We had the flexibility to assume different roles back then as we were like a ‘startup’ of sorts but backed by a big company,” he recalls. “But I was doing many things and it wasn’t like a fixed career trajectory because one was being thrown into the deep end and if one swam very well, one would be given more.”
Eight years on, Google Malaysia is still growing – its staff strength is approximately 50 today – but the company has much more structure and is diversifying into other areas besides search.
One big area is cloud computing, an area where Google aims to challenge leading contenders Amazon Web Service and Microsoft Corp. AWS’ market share holds steady in this high-growth market – it grew faster than the overall market, as it has done for the last eight quarters, according to the latest market figures from Synergy Research.
Another area that’s changing is the way advertisements are done, particularly in a country such as Malaysia, where digital is gaining ground but not as much as he would like it to.
In a wide-ranging interview, DNA sat down with the 37-year-old first homegrown Malaysian country head for Google. Below are excerpts of the interview. Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q. It was an honour for you to be the first locally-appointed head in Malaysia. How do you feel about that? What were your thoughts when you were first told?
To be honest – and I don’t want to sound presumptuous – it wasn’t a surprise to me when I got the job. The way we think about talent in Google is that we constantly talk about career development and long-term plans of employees. Say a person expresses a particular career goal with managers, colleagues and team members and if there is a 100% buy-in, they would want you to succeed.
Sajith, my predecessor, has been a great supporter of my career trajectory and has guided me along. We do regular check ins and chats around career development. And if you’re up to scratch and deliver what’s required of you, then it’s no surprise that one can get the job.
My own personal feeling is that I’m terribly blessed. Google promotes diversity, and adds value by tapping from different sets of diverse people from different backgrounds and experiences that they can bring to the table. I also feel proud and excited as I’m able to not only influence business but Malaysia as a society.
Q. How does your experience within and without Google help prepare you for this role? What do you bring to the table differently from your predecessors, and why?
My principle is that you have to have courage to try different things and you’ve got to be constantly out of your comfort zone. If every day you’re feeling a bit uncomfortable but excited, that’s a good thing. I draw parallels to the time I was a student, where I was the first web developer at the World Cyber Games in Kuala Lumpur. I didn’t know HTML myself but when the opportunity came to me, I took it on by teaching myself HTML. Another time was when I was in Singapore in 2009, I built a digital agency pivoting from a traditional agency. That taught me entrepreneurial and digital skills.
What was consistent in those times is that one shouldn’t be afraid to try new things and one should constantly push the boundaries, and I believe all that has prepared me for this role. I like to think that constant learning is important and this doesn’t mean not saying no to things but more yes-es than nos. Ultimately, one must have the resilience because things change all the time.
Q. As employee No 1, what are the fundamental changes you’ve seen over the years in Google Malaysia?
I’ve seen a multitude of solutions changed and as such I think that emphasis on diversity and the people we have in this office is even more crucial. Having different skills, backgrounds and different perspectives to the business is good for Google. Of course, the landscape we’re in is also very different. Back then digital hadn’t taken off and so the conversations were different. We are blessed because Malaysia has moved towards digitisation and we are front and centre to help Malaysia achieve that agenda.
Q. Speaking about a different landscape, Google has said that it is trying to diversify from advertising as the main revenue earner over the course of time. What are you doing do support this effort? How about Google Cloud activities? Can you discuss this more?
The whole reason for Google being restructured to become a subsidiary under Alphabet Inc is really about placing more emphasis on how to develop new businesses and to future-proof our growth as a business, The worst thing that can happen to us is that while growing we stop thinking about the future.
Google Malaysia is not terribly different from what has been done globally. We are placing bets on tangential industry that would power the Internet economy. Our Google Cloud business is one area we’re investing a lot in. We’re building the infrastructure from scratch and are extending this to provide cost-efficient solutions for our customers. Our aim is to try to figure out how to localise everything and bring about relevance to Malaysian consumers.
Q. Google Cloud is now regionally managed from Singapore. What is your role then here in Malaysia?
There isn’t a black and white playbook for my role as country head. But one thing is for certain, whatever Google Malaysia does for the market, I want to be held responsible and embrace everything that is Google. As for Google Cloud, we have a team based in Malaysia helping our customers with their needs. The team works with the regional team for now but when the revenue grows, we will invest more on headcount.
Q. How have you seen the landscape for your ad business changed over the past two years? What are Malaysians brands doing differently now than before and why?
I think in the past two years, the advertising industry in terms of its expenditure (comprising traditional and digital) has stagnated based on the macro data we’ve looked at. In fact, the likes of Comscore and Nielsen have predicted that growth at best would be at single digits only. What this means is that the advertiser in general, especially the top 300, are becoming more in tuned with what they need to achieve, which is to grow their business in the most cost-effective way, and digital offers this.
Malaysian consumers are turning to digital more, and advertisers are following suite. And we’re also moving towards a privacy-approach to advertising. We’ve a lot of experience in this but we all need to do more. That privacy-first lens is top of mind for us.
Q. What does this privacy-first approach entail?
The privacy-first approach is about giving the end consumer the power to choose what sort of data and information they want to share with service providers. A service provider provides consumers with entertainment and services and in return, consumers agree to share information with the service provider through browsing history and location data.
Data such as demographics, the kind of audience, are collected to better target the consumer preferences of advertisements. In the privacy-first approach, the consumer has a choice whether they want to share the data or not. The data we collect is anonymised to help us get advertisements that are more relevant to the person. If you choose not to, you can shut it off.
Q. So if the overall advertising expenditure is not growing, how would that affect Google’s business in Malaysia?
When the overall economic sentiment is weak, advertising expenditure (ADEX) is affected, especially that of traditional advertising. As more advertisers choose digital, naturally, the decline in traditional spending would be offset by digital advertising but that’s not happening here in Malaysia. There is clear imbalance here. In the United Kingdom, over 50% on time spent by consumers are on the web and mobile and the digital share of wallet for ADEX is about 50%. Malaysians spend a lot of time on gaming, search, and YouTube but it isn’t commensurate with the digital share of wallet. We need to level this imbalance.
Q. What is causing this imbalance?
We need more empirical evidence to answer this but what I can say is that consumer behaviour is easier to change because they can derive value from new forms of entertainment and utility from new services. But from the marketer and advertiser point of view, they require much more trial and error, to determine what works and what doesn’t, and what’s impacting their bottom line. So they are proceeding cautiously into digital, some faster than others. At Google, we’re testing with them what best composition works for them.
Q. It's increasingly competitive to get and retain talent. How are you doing on this front and how do you stay ahead? What is your management style and how does that sit overall with Google's work culture, such that you can inspire your people to keep working at Google?
If there is one word, it’s adaptability. Adaptability to different scenarios as things move so quickly in Google and in tech in general. Along with this, is the need to be transparent, including all the things we do at Google Malaysia, including what management says and what’s discussed at the regional level. For me, I try my best as far as possible to disseminate and share information and updates with my people, cascading the information on to them in the most timely and transparent manner.
As for retaining talent, there is a need to give my staff a lot of freedom while ensuring that they’re on track. Freedom doesn’t mean a total hands-off approach but to get into the trenches with the team and individuals to ensure they are achieving their best. Lastly, there is a need to have a strong and overarching vision, and getting everyone to buy in. This includes crafting the vision together and communicating weekly with leads. Once a quarter, we do a review on the whole organisation where we look at the grand vision and how we’re trending towards that vision.
Q. As head of the local office of one of the largest companies in the world, what is your hope for Malaysia? Where do you see it going in terms of an economy, the future of the country? What is it doing right and not right? Where are its weaknesses and what can corporations do to improve things, especially in the light of the new government?
I feel this role is very special and I am highly privileged to lead it. Google’s platform is used by a lot of people and part of my task is to bring the best of Google to Malaysia. Personally, I would like to see a continued multifaceted and inclusiveness in ideations, information sharing, economic opportunities for Google and Malaysia. At Google Malaysia, we’re doing this by contributing to the GDP (gross domestic product) per capita. We’re doing our small part, upscaling talent, localising our products to bring more economic benefits to the citizens. By doing so, we are broadcasting Malaysia to the world.