One of only two Chinese at the recent White House Correspondents’ Assn.’s annual dinner, hosted by President Obama, SY Lau has become a major player in the media world, despite not being found at the head of a global TV channel or influential newspaper.
Instead, Malaysian-born Lau Seng Yee, who is being honored this month at the Cannes Lions advertising industry forum, is head of China’s colossal digital company Tencent Online Media Group.
The Tencent name means little to most Americans and indeed little to most consumers, unless they are also equity traders. In that case they may be familiar with Tencent’s spectacular growth from a startup in 1997 to a behemoth in 2015, valued at over $200 billion.
Tencent’s best-known products are its QQ messaging system and WeChat messaging platform, which both count hundreds of millions of users. And in the case of WeChat, which also offers voice calling, many subscribers are outside China. The group also owns portals, payment systems and games companies Epic and Riot.
What has driven WeChat’s success is the integration that Tencent and Lau have pursued across the company’s own range of services and with third parties.
Lau dismisses criticism that the company copies rather than innovates.
He describes a repeated pattern of market and technology analysis that results in making the right product available at the right time. He likens it to the well-thought-out strategy that must come before action as described by famous Chinese warrior Sun Tzu in “The Art of War.” Another favorite reference of Lau’s is the phrase “digital Darwinism,” by which he means that the species most willing and able to change is the one that will survive.
Lau himself has evolved. He is not a programming geek or computer engineer, but spent nearly 20 years in the advertising business. He joined Tencent with a mission to increase its online advertising revenues after such high-profile posts in global advertising giants such as Publicis in China, where he was managing director, and BBDO China, where he was CEO; before that he held positions at Dentsu Young & Rubicam and McCann Erickson in China and Hong Kong.
These days, he spends time finding ways for brands and their marketing executives to connect better with their clients, whether their need is brand exposure, balancing supply and demand through auction sites, or win-win feedback loops such as restaurant review sites or taxi-hailing apps, like Didi Dache. That’s where WeChat’s phenomenal ease of use scores heavily, and its adaptability and connectivity become a virtuous circle.
These qualities have attracted major consumer brands, such as Mars, Proctor & Gamble, Pepsi and Ford, to work closely with the company on their strategies.
They have also helped make Tencent a player in the media space.
Tencent has bought and adapted formats such as “The Voice” and “Got Talent” for Chinese consumption, launched a British content channel (Benedict Cumberbatch is a huge star in China thanks to Tencent’s running of “Sherlock”), and teamed with National Geographic and the National Basketball Assn. It is partnered with HBO to create a platform for the cabler’s content.
Tencent is now busily developing its own content in both TV formats and feature movies. Both are helped by access to huge amounts of data on what half the Chinese population is reading, watching, thinking and buying.
Lau says China is now in its third era of “Internet thinking,” by which he means a time when “the Internet has become a mainstream medium that has altered the media landscape.” The Chinese “new normal” that Lau describes goes far further than copying and improving other ideas, and describes an environment where social media, connectivity and in-app payments come as standard.
Previous recipients of the Cannes Lion prize include other media visionaries Google’s Eric Schmidt, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, HBO’s Richard Plepler and YouTube’s Salar Kamangar.
Lau also spoke to Variety about the award:
This is the first time an executive of a Chinese company has been given the Media Person of the Year award.
It is an honor to accept this prestigious award on behalf of Tencent Online Media Group. This award not only demonstrates the success of our company, but also highlights the rise of China as a global force for online innovation, creativity and quality content.
Ten years ago, we were a provider of an Internet portal. Now OMG offers China’s largest integrated media service matrix. OMG is setting a new industry standard and has changed the way that Chinese people utilize media.
We are committed to delivering innovation and content that continually drives the user experience to new levels of excellence. This accolade from the Cannes Lions is recognition for the immense effort of our teams, who set themselves the goal of meeting the dynamic lifestyle demands of people today.
Do you see yourself as a media executive or more a businessperson?
I see myself as both, with the media executive role taking precedence over the business role.
At Tencent, we believe in bringing value to the consumer. No matter how quickly technology evolves, or how complicated the competitive landscape becomes, increasing value to consumers is what guarantees sustainable growth. This is reflected in OMG’s mission and vision, that we are primarily a media platform instead of a commercial platform.
Tencent News and Tencent Video were created to provide users simple, easy to use and easy to acquire content services.
How do you describe the Online Media Group?
Tencent Online Media Group operates all of Tencent’s online media services platforms, including the video-streaming service Tencent Video; the Internet access and portal Tencent News; microblogging platform Tencent Microblog; and other related services. These diverse services are all available via PC and mobile devices. The mission of OMG is to become a world-class media group delivering rich content to its broad user base.
How large is the Online Media Group’s reach with consumers?
Since its launch in 2011, Tencent Video has offered enriched content to Chinese audiences. In 2014 it became the largest platform providing British and American dramas in China. In the same year, 50 million users daily accessed Tencent Video on their mobile terminals. The business group owns a 3,000-square-meter broadcasting complex where it produces high-quality original programs.
It is one of the most sophisticated broadcasting complexes in Asia owned by a new media company. In January, 250 million users read Tencent news via mobile (devices) every single day, making it the most popular news app in the country.