Octagon Asia, with offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, Singapore and Seoul, has increased its footprint in Asia in the recent past, focusing mostly on its consulting and events businesses. Octagon Asia continued the company’s long-standing relationship with Mastercard with the naming of the Mastercard Center in Beijing, one of the biggest naming-rights deals ever in China. Also in China, the company worked with Northface to turn its Northface 100 into the largest endurance-running event in Asia, this year attracting more than 9,000 people. In South Korea, Octagon Asia facilitated construction company Doosan’s sponsorship of the British Open. Octagon Asia's Beijing-based Managing Dir RYAN SANDILANDS recently talked with SBD Global Staff Writer Kristen Heimstead about the company's operations and plans for the Far East.
Q: What is the biggest cultural challenge you face in your job?
Sandilands: Language is obviously key, but the conversations that happen before the meeting starts and just after it ends, where the translator isn’t there or it’s small talk that doesn’t necessarily translate, that’s a time when you’re often able to get to know your client a lot deeper and you get to understand them personally. That’s tough not being able to participate in that aspect sometimes.
Q: What is the biggest area for growth in your business?
Sandilands: I think it’s in the consulting side, developing sponsorship strategy. For international brands coming into China, Chinese brands in China and also Chinese brands going abroad. …The Chinese government is encouraging the major Chinese brands to go forth and promote themselves abroad by way of representing “brand China.”
Q: Which country within Asia do you think is the most advanced in the sports business space?
Sandilands: I would probably say Japan. It’s quite controlled, but it’s developed. They have their football league, their baseball league – their golf activity has been established for many years. They’ve just been at it for longer. They’ve been exporting their talent longer, importing talent and having international events taking place in the country longer than any other country in Asia. Considering all of these factors, they’re the most established.
Q: Which league or event in Asia do you foresee growing the most in the next five years?
Sandilands: I would love to say football in China. I think football in Asia has a great chance, and I’m a huge fan of the Asian Champions League. I think the potential for that to grow is huge. From a sports marketing perspective, if you’re speaking to a marketing director with Asia Pacific responsibility and you have an annual competition as an ongoing annual asset, that hits a large number of markets that fall within that marketing director’s reach.
Q: Do you think that the CSL and CBA will eventually have the potential to compete with teams in the U.S. and Europe?
Sandilands: I think they’re so far behind that it’s almost impossible for them to catch up because it’s not as though the major Western leagues are standing still. They continue to grow and expand and innovate. And as they try to expand their fan base as well, then you have the Asian leagues that are doing the same thing, and they’re not expanding at a faster pace. The gap is so big in the first place, I think that the CSL and the CBA will always be domestic leagues.
Q: How does censorship in China limit the growth of sports business or the work you do in China?
Sandilands: Censorship doesn’t really impact us on the sports side. We’ve never had anything blocked. Ultimately what we’re trying to do in sport in general is very positive. It’s part of the government’s five year plan in terms of encouraging more participation in sport and encouraging people to be healthier and to be fitter…it’s all moving in the same direction as the government wants it to move.
Q: Why is it that the sports business space in Asia is less dense?
Sandilands: I think it’s not as developed, but I think that the fan experience will catch up quickly – not to the extent that you’re going to have thousands of people tailgating outside of a CSL game, but I think that as more people travel and more international brands get involved in sports, then they’ll look to import ideas that have worked elsewhere. Then they’ll ask, “Would this work in China? Japan? Does it need to be adapted to fit with a slight difference in the local market?” I think that companies will make long-term investments and commitments to sport. It’s just about the market being at an early stage of development.
Sandilands: From a personal perspective I’m interested in the NHL discussion right now because I spent seven years in Montreal, and I continue to watch for the Montreal Canadians every week. And then again another personal one is the situation in Scottish football with Glasgow Rangers. Within the China market, there is so much that happens on a daily and weekly basis in terms of sport here that your attention is driven in so many directions.
Q: What do you miss about sports back home?
Sandilands: I think actually I’m really fortunate in that I don’t miss anything in terms of the content. So I can catch up with my Scottish football team and the English football teams I like … I’m sitting here with golf on right now from the Italian Open. I’ll watch the Ryder Cup online. So we’re in a fortunate position that technology allows us not to miss things in terms of content. What you miss is the live event.
Q: How do you consume your local sports news?
Sandilands: I read the back pages of the China Daily to keep me up to speed and a couple other newspapers, and then a lot of it is just connecting with my team. We have a good team that is predominately Chinese, local Beijing and Shanghainese. I try to engage my guys and get out of them their thoughts and ideas and interpretations within the sports world. So that’s how I keep up with it. Because there aren’t that many websites in this language for CBA or CSL that I want or need to spend a huge amount of time reviewing stats or going into great detail.
Q: What would you say to someone that wants to break into the Chinese sports industry?
Sandilands: If somebody is interested in China, then you have to come and see it. You have to come over and just immerse yourself in it for a while to try and understand whether there’s a business for you in this market. Then come in with a specific focus, try and understand the market and know that it’s not all going to go your way, and that the best laid plans need to be put to the side -- you’ve got to be flexible. It’s a hugely vibrant place, and there are a lot of people looking for fresh, new ideas, and for me that’s a refreshing change from the news coming out of Europe and the U.S.