“When I first began my career in the UK, I never thought about working internationally — I only thought about what I could and couldn’t do. Becoming the General Manager in North America for InMobi, and seeing the scale on which New York operated, changed me. However, simply shifting locations changes your perception of what is possible. All of the anchors in your life change, and that forces you to rethink. I was no longer bounded by what I could and couldn’t do — it was what I can do, and what I hadn’t yet learned. If you don’t try, you are never going to get there.”
Robin: What does Protean do and why is it important?
Richard: Throughout their careers, most people have ideas that they never get the time to act on. For me, Protean is that idea. It is the culmination of having worked across the globe and observing trends. Protean is a vehicle for advice without bias or pretence that gives people the sounding board they need to take the next informative step. We make the link between an ambiguous situation and an effective, versatile outcome.
There are three core value propositions around Protean’s strategy and development. The first is a hands-off market entry approach — mapping out a market for someone else to execute against. The second is a hands-on implementation of business development. I can get my hands dirty, grow the company and then enable you to hire your team — working as an activist MD and the first person on the ground for companies looking to move into APAC. The third role is taking a media advisory position. For a young company with a great idea, I might do that pro-bono. If the company has investment, that becomes a paid consultancy project.
Robin: Why is APAC different — why focus on helping companies enter that market?
Richard: There is significant diversity in Europe, but everyone tries to equate that to, and underestimates, the diversity in APAC. In reality, Europe is quite homogenous — all the markets are fairly advanced and English is a de facto language, particularly in business. Outside of Russia, there are very few closed markets.
The thing about APAC is that you can’t go in with what you know — you have to learn. You have to learn from everyone you meet, language, culture, business etiquette etc. It isn’t just another different region for business — every market within APAC should be treated differently. Malaysia, for example, is sophisticated and mature, however, its growth potential is minimised against a market like Thailand — but, Thailand is an entirely different game because of the language barrier. On the reverse side, you have Australia, which is challenging because it is a highly competitive, a top performing innovative market but dominated by very few media/ tech players. India, with a billion plus people by contrast — and very little of what you learn there can be directly transferred to a place like Singapore.
China is the second largest ad market in the world and the second largest programmatic market by revenue; Japan is third. But, both come with huge challenges. You have to take a situational leadership style and adapt yourself to those markets, and you can’t expect to dominate everything. In every market you enter, you are going to face new competitors, new entrants, different regulations, different cultures, different languages, different norms, and new demand-side partners. This, coupled with the growing significance of the region, is why there are a number of companies emerging as entry experts — ‘gatekeepers’. There are companies that specialise in a particular market — China, for example. Russia and Japan are two other countries that need specific gatekeepers. However, this logic applies to the entirety of APAC. You need someone who can act as a translator — not just for language and culture, but also for relationships.
Robin: How is the market changing and where do you see your future?
Richard: The big change that has happened is that disruption has become the norm — not the exception. It is affecting every industry — people need to be versatile and adaptable, and that needs to come through in their experience as well as their education. Some companies sit on the sidelines and wait for trends. One thing I learned from my time at InMobi is the necessity to take ‘moon-shots’. Being okay with failure is a key to success — or at least to innovation. It is important to know how to pivot. That is a skill every company needs to understand.
Data, machine learning and automation are all technological developments that are looking to accelerate the new norm of continuous disruption. For me, that creates specific challenges for APAC and further complicates attempts by European and US-based companies to enter the market. As VC money and exits constrict, the need for people to act as ‘gatekeepers’ to navigate markets or niches will expand.
In my last role, and through Protean, I have been involved in identifying gatekeepers — in both China and Japan specifically, but in other markets as well. My goal is to solve problems in ad-tech for businesses looking to expand into, or out, of APAC. My role, Protean’s role, is to be the link between an ambiguous situation and an effective, versatile outcome for a company or brand. The outcome can be solved for by Protean or through its myriad of relationships, partnerships globally, meaning it acts at the horizontal level. For example while I am not a specialist on China I am aware of the landscape and I’m connected first hand to experts who are, and Protean works together with them in partnership. Where Protean needs to focus is in creating structure around partnerships with specialists and the future for me is very much around curating that framework.
Richard O’Sullivan has spent nearly two decades working at the intersection of media and technology. He is now the Principal & Managing Director of Protean Consulting — a strategic advisory firm that specialises in early-stage tech-companies and is uniquely positioned to help global firms understand and penetrate APAC.
Richard’s journey has taken him from London to Dubai, Singapore, New York and now Australia. He spent nearly five years leading operations for InMobi in different capacities ranging from APAC, North America, North Africa and EMEA before becoming Global SVP for Leadbolt. Insightive.tv’sRobin Block sat down with Richard to discuss the building businesses in APAC and his expectations for the future.