Archive for November, 2008


November 25, 2008 Leave a comment

By Hisham Isa, Vice President (Marketing)

South Africa is a unique market, yet one that offers good lessons to mobile enthusiasts and advertising/marketing executives worldwide.

Less than fifteen years after the fall of apartheid, economic disparity in this country of nearly 50 million is acute. First World and Third World economies live side by side. Yet while some workers from the townships and rural areas earn a living inside the wealthy enclaves, the rich and poor in South Africa are generally more separated and live more apart than in any other country I’ve visited.

This presents a challenge to consumer businesses that aim to serve the entire country, a challenge accentuated by the presence of nearly a dozen different official languages and the fact that many South Africans at the bottom of the pyramid do not have access to the country’s mainstream media.

Let’s take a look at an example: mobile phone providers. Companies like Vodafone were particuarly hard hit by the “missed call phenomenon”. Consumers without sufficient phone credits who needed to reach someone by phone, routinely hung up after just a couple rings. This was a signal to the other party to please call back.

Carrier networks were inundated by millions of missed calls each day.But rather than write off this segment of the market, Vodafone saw a business opportunity. They introduced “Please Call Me”, a free ad-supported SMS service. Instead of calling and hanging up, South African consumers can now send the free “Please Call Me” text message. Grocery stores, insurance companies and other businesses quickly signed up for the programme, seeing it as a way to connect with difficult-to-reach consumers. Vodafone now serves some 20 million ads a day along with the Please Call Me messages.

Vodafone has tapped businesses who wouldn’t advertise otherwise, like providers of funeral insurance. AIDS is unfortunately still a major killer in South Africa, particularly among lower income groups. Funerals are expensive, often out-of-reach for the country’s poor. Insurance companies offer funeral insurance, which the poor can afford. But insurers had trouble advertising the service, since their target audience rarely access mainstream media. Mobile marketing provided the perfect solution.

Companies across South Africa are now integrating mobile advertising into their marketing strategies, more so than in other markets. Replies to a survey of executives attending BuzzCity’s South African roadshow provide an insightful snapshot:

  • Only 3% of respondents had not tried any form of mobile marketing
  • SMS campaigns have been used by 34%
  • Mobile Internet campaigns have been implemented by 31%
  • 81% of respondents say it’s important to own a mobile site
  • 93% believe that mobile sites increase interactivity between a brand and its users
These responses are significantly higher than what we’ve seen at BuzzCity roadshows in other countries.

Digital agencies are springing up in major markets. Cape Town in particular has a healthy online publishing industry and by some accounts, there are now more than thirty digital agencies there alone. A number of these digital agencies are making a business out of developing mobile sites for their customers.

Mobile downloads have decreased and content providers are turning to ads for revenue. South Africa ranks #3 globally in the BuzzCity Mobile Advertising Index with more than 540 million ads served from July to September 2008.

More South Africans meanwhile access the internet from mobile devices than computers. Nearly twice as many in fact, according to Vodacom, which says there are close to 9.5 million mobile users in South Africa. Along the same lines, Google reports greater usage of its mobile site in South Africa than its website.

Next on the horizon is the 2010 World Cup. South Africa is undergoing an infrastructure boom in the build-up to the Cup. Virtual infrastructure should profit as well. This represents a great opportunity to produce new content introducing the country to the expected influx of visitors. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see South Africa become the first market to see the rise of boutique mobile ad networks. Boutique networks – that serve one genre, like hotel sites, adult sites, local language sites, etc. — exist for the internet, but not for mobile.

In “Africa Rising”, Vijay Mahajan argues that 900 million African consumers “offer more than you think”. While this may be news to many, South African companies know it well. They are finding business opportunities where others have just shrugged their shoulders. And at BuzzCity, we appreciate and admire their innovation.

Categories: Hisham Isa


November 7, 2008 Leave a comment

By Lai Kok Fung, BuzzCity CEO

I have a confession to make. It won’t come as much of a surprise, though, to my friends, family and colleagues:

I’m a Geek.
In fact, I’m proud of being a Geek. For me, a great day is one when I spend hours coding. Now this may seem a bit strange to some. BuzzCity is an international company. Last month, we sold mobile advertising in more than 100 countries. The ads we sold were viewed more than 2 billion times. As CEO, I am responsible for directing our growth, which requires allocating resources and meeting with clients and investors. We hire engineers to design and upgrade our products and systems. So, why should I, a CEO, still get my hands dirty with programming?

In many places – including my home here in Singapore where BuzzCity is based – culture dictates that engineers with career ambitions become managers and VPs. They should take on positions where they no longer utilise their core skill sets and where business models and marketing displace innovation.

At BuzzCity, though, we foster an environment where engineers can still be engineers and where innovation is valued. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we have done so well.


BuzzCity’s innovative approach was recently recognised at Singapore’s National Infocomm Awards, where we won top prize for having the “Most Innovative Infocomm Product/Service”. Nominees were judged primarily on the innovative use of infocomm technologies or development of infocomm product/service. Other criteria included overall business strategy, business impact created and regional/international market presence.

At times, though, it feels like we are swimming upstream. Despite calls by our government to encourage creative thought and entrepreneurship, Singapore does not really provide a good climate for innovation. And it’s not just Singapore. This is true for many of the markets where we do business.

How do you define innovation? What exactly is it?

It’s like what the US Supreme Court once said about pornography. I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it.

We’re not talking about “improvements” or “inventions”. We strive to perform better – to improve – every day. We make improvements to existing processes and products. Innovation is something different.

I believe innovation is about addressing problems in a new way. It’s about successfully applying new ideas. Often, this can even be in a way that no one saw or thought of before.

In our business, a question that often spurs innovation is “how else will people use a mobile device?”


1. The biggest problem is money. But it’s not a lack of funding. Rather it’s that innovation is measured and motivated by financial rewards. Innovation is viewed by business executives, journalists and governments as a means to an end. Companies that innovate are only admired when their innovation increases revenue, raises profits, leads to a public listing or large payout. This does not encourage a culture of innovation or a workplace where employee creativity is valued. By contrast, take a look at Google or Yahoo! Google began as an intellectual exercise by two Ph.D. students at Stanford University; the Yahoo! search engine started off as a hobby of Jerry Yang. (Yang may be out of favour in business circles at the moment, but his design of the Yahoo! search engine revolutionised the Internet.)

2. I.T. meanwhile is sold to students as a career where they can find stable employment and income. Of course, if there are sectors that pay more – like finance, prior to the recent crisis – then youth are encouraged by their parents, peers and professors to follow these routes instead.

3. I.T. takes a backseat to other parts of a company. It’s expected to play a supporting role and is not seen as integral to the process of business. Take the criteria for Singapore’s National Infocomm Awards, for example. Nominees are judged on how innovation improves productivity and processes. The key for the judges was how innovation assists other parts of the business.


1. We consistently hire people who enjoy what they do.

2. We provide time for employees to work on personal projects.

3. The tech team works closely with other departments (sales, marketing, business development). Together, we read the market signals, discuss consumer demands and come up with solutions to meet these needs.

4. We encourage people who like to code to keep on doing it.


I went through a phase in my career when my peers told me not to be too concerned with product development or technology. I was advised to focus on building partnerships and power lunches. After all, I was told, that was the best way to both build a company and advance my own career.

My message to our staff – and future employees – now is “it’s OK to be a geek.” Despite what your parents, boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife may say, you can be proud of being a techie even after the age of 30 or 40.

In fact, if you want to have a career as a Geek, call. We could use you at BuzzCity.

Categories: Lai Kok Fung