07 July 2020

What I learned… starting our business in China

by Alexander Deats, EVP, Strategy & Operations, China

‘What I learned’ is a blog series that lets you see what life is like inside MiQ, as people from our business talk about challenges they’ve overcome, opportunities they’ve taken, and everything they’ve discovered along the way. 

In my current role at MiQ, I’m responsible for scaling the MiQ business in China, providing international brands programmatic solutions to access the Chinese audience from anywhere in the world. But my fascination with China started much earlier. 

At university, I studied business and economics with a strong focus on macroeconomics and international trade. At that time, China was undergoing sweeping social and economic transformation, experiencing double-digit GDP growth, and shifting to a more market-based capitalist economy. I simply could not believe the statistics and stories originating from China, and it ignited an immediate need in me to find out more about the country… to the extent I skipped my university graduation to start an internship in Beijing at Renren, a Chinese social networking platform. 

Moving to China was an unforgettable experience. I remember the hustle and bustle of the daily subway commute, the ritual of the afternoon office nap, joining Tai Chi classes in the local park... Everything was alien to me, but I loved it. And it was an exciting time to join Renren. They were just preparing to IPO on the New York Stock Exchange and I was assigned to the growing digital marketing department to support the launch and monetisation of Renren’s first pre-roll video ad format. This was my first experience of the digital advertising industry - an industry I didn’t really know existed at the time but one that would go on to shape the next decade of my career.

London, New York, London… then back to China

After my internship, I almost stayed in Beijing. But instead, I came back to London to work at A&NY Media, a small ad network part of the larger dmg:media company. And then, because of the connections I made there, I got a call from Gurman Hundal, co-founder of MiQ, asking if I would like to explore a role at MiQ based in New York. 

I said yes without hesitation, and spent three years in the US helping scale the business there, before coming back to London to take on the role of global trader director. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in that time it’s to dare to dream big. With the right team, the right attitude and the right skills, I’ve seen that anything is possible. 

And so when Lee Puri, MiQ’s other co-founder approached me in 2019 with the opportunity to launch our business in China, given my experience with MiQ and my long-standing fascination with China, it seemed like a match made in heaven. 

The size of the challenge

While my enthusiasm levels stayed sky high, it soon dawned on me the magnitude of what I’d signed up to. The challenge China presented was like none other I’d faced in my career. When I joined the team, we’d already conducted 18 months of research and due diligence ahead of our intended entry. But even with all the facts and figures that showed what a great opportunity it was, my mind yoyoed between thinking ‘we can do this!’ one minute and ‘can we do this?’ the next.

Fortunately, this feeling subsided as soon as I visited Shanghai. I spent the day meeting technology and inventory partners, prospective clients, and candidates for our Shanghai team. It was a 14-hour day, a real slog, but adrenalin saw me through it. 

Rather than go back to the hotel, I took an evening walk along the Bund, the waterfront area in central Shanghai. I’m glad I did. The place had an energy about it, one I’d never felt before. It was even livelier than New York. All the uncertainty and ‘what if’ thoughts vanished, replaced with renewed enthusiasm and determination.

Things moved quickly. We finalised our commercial, product, marketing, people, and operational strategy. We brought in new bi-lingual team members, flew back and forth to Shanghai forging local partnerships to build our China programmatic stack, and started taking our proposition to brands and agencies in the US and the UK. Before we knew it, we had a handful of clients signed up for our beta launch who wanted to execute programmatic in China from their ‘home’ markets.

We were learning on the fly, rapidly evolving and taking all the trials and tribulations in our stride. Yes, we came against problems. It was gruelling, it was hard, but there was nothing our team couldn’t overcome - we had so much fun. We launched our China inbound business and, in our first six months, saw it grow faster than any other geography MiQ has ever launched in.

The impact of COVID-19

We entered 2020 riding a wave of growth and excitement. We’d strategized to our hearts’ content, we had investment signed-off, and we’d laid the foundations for a bumper 2020. 

Then COVID-19 happened. 

Immediately, all our planning went out the window, as China started to feel the full force of the disease. On January 21st, our largest client paused their campaign - and all the others soon followed. We went from hero to zero in an instant. It was a bitter pill to swallow.

At the time, we had no understanding of the severity of the novel coronavirus. And as its impact became clear, the business impact was the least of our worries. Many of our team have friends and family in China, and our thoughts turned to their safety and for all those impacted across China.

From a work perspective, during the early days of the pandemic, things were tough. Not only were we launching a business in what may be considered the toughest market in the world, but it was now compounded by a deadly and rapidly spreading virus. The self-doubt crept back. ‘Can we do this?’ was once again a constant question in my mind.

Weathering the storm

The first two months of 2020 were hectic. We held crunch talks, transformed our operating rhythm, crafted new plans. We did everything we could think of to survive. We knew we were well short of where we wanted to be, but there was no point dwelling on the situation. 

We set ourselves mini-milestones and motivational gateways that laddered up to our revised objectives. We celebrated wins no matter how big or small to make sure we kept up our momentum and kept our morale high. It would have been easy to throw in the towel, but our team rallied and united through intense adversity. 

The resilience and courage of the China team has been incredible. I’m extremely proud to be a part of it. We have been put through the ringer over the last few months, but we’ve undoubtedly come out the other side stronger. And as we move deeper into 2020, the future is starting to look brighter for China. The country is getting back on its feet. The green shoots of recovery are real, clients have reactivated cancelled campaigns and we are once again on a growth trajectory. 

What I’ve learned

As a kid my dad always told me, ‘the more you put in, the more you get out’. I may not have embraced this mantra in its entirety at school… but the same cannot be said of the China team in the first half of 2020. We dug deep and are now yielding the fruits of our labour. We’re well-placed to grasp all the opportunities China presents.

And that’s a lesson I’ve seen throughout my career. I’ve seen good times and bad times in businesses, and I have valuable experiences from them all. Above all else, I’ve learned to live in the moment and to enjoy what I’m doing, even when times are tough.  

I’ve never thought ‘where do I want to be in five years?’. Five years ago, I certainly didn’t think I’d be doing what I am doing today. You never really know what the future holds. But if you enjoy what you do, it creates an environment where you can achieve anything you put your mind to. Enjoyment and fulfilment are the catalysts for overachievement. They foster positivity and opportunity. 

So, what have I learned? Have fun and enjoy what you do. The rest will take care of itself.


For information about how you can succeed with programmatic in China check out our approach or contact one of our experts

For more information on what the Chinese COVID-19 recovery can teach Western advertisers, listen to our podcast.