:: Kaiser Kuo is group director of digital strategy for Ogilvy in China. He’s also a thinker, a writer, a metal rocker, and just an all-around mensch. For more on Kaiser, Google him (he’s everywhere) or continue reading below where he talks about hair, the digital space and online / Internet culture in China, swords, start ups, innovation, Web site wars, those whom he admires, and his addiction to Audible.com.
56minus1: When can we look forward to you cutting your hair? Isn’t it about time? How long have you had it like that, and why?
Kaiser Kuo: What are you, my mother? No, because my mother doesn’t even ask me about my hair. I’ve had it long since the late 80s, though it went through that decade’s obligatory mullet mode briefly. I cut it short for a girl, like an idiot, in 1995. Never again. Why wear it long? I kinda like the stuff. When you’re playing a show it amplifies movement and it looks like I’m working a lot harder than I actually am. A guy like Flea from the Chili Peppers? His neck’s gotta really hurt the next day. I can take a couple of ibuprfofen and be fine, and no one’s the wiser, all ’cause of the hair.
56minus1: OK, but seriously, aren’t you a little too old for this moonlighting rock & roll stuff? Shouldn’t you be at home with your kids or something?
Kaiser Kuo: Oh, c’mon, I’m not that old, am I? At one point I kept telling myself I’d quit when I turned 40, but I’ve pushed that back a decade at least now that that particular milestone is past. Chunqiu will go through periods where it sucks up lots and lots of time, but it’s sporadic. When we’re in cruising mode, not writing a lot of new material and just playing occasional shows, it’s not a big time suck. Even when we’re active, I still manage to spend a lot of time at home with the kids. When we write, we usually do it at my home, with just the singer Yang Meng, the other guitarist Kou Zhengyu, and the keyboardist Li Meng. The kids love to watch rehearsal. They throw the horns, headbang, and hail the cloven-hooved Prince of Darkness like good little Metal munchkins. Generally, we play only one or at most two shows a month in Beijing, and a big national tour like the one we’re about to embark on next week doesn’t happen often. I’ll miss the kids like crazy during that three weeks on the road.
56mimus1: As someone deeply entrenched in China’s digital space, what are your biggest and boldest predictions or thoughts on trends for the Chinese Internet over the next 18 months? What can be expected?
Kaiser Kuo: I’m not one for bold predictions, really, and all bets are off now that the credit crisis is lapping at China’s shores. With funding as tight as it’s going to be in the time frame, you specify, we’ll see a big die-off of companies already in operation, particularly in capital-intensive sectors like Internet video, and we’ll see very few new startups in the Internet space overall getting funded.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be new startups: they’ll just have to be even scrappier, even better at keeping burn low, and revenue-generating pretty much right out of the gate. Any companies that were planning on going that old route of racking up tens of millions of users and then thinking about how to monetize, or assuming they’d have the media agencies beating down their doors and falling over each other to buy inventory, are going to have to seriously rethink their business models.
Companies that are able to make revenue through micropayments or through affiliate referral (like Douban does, or browsers like Maxthon do with search referral), will be in much better shape than non-established players who are counting on ad revenue to keep them afloat. One start-up I really like, called CMUNE, is headquartered here in Beijing but is comprised of a very international team with some really big names attached. They’re not venture backed at all: they’re paying as they go, and they’re doing some super innovative stuff with 3D environments for social networking and collaboration.
Established players will do well this winter, provided it doesn’t last too long. They’re adequately capitalized, already have sales teams in place and strong brands, and they’ll benefit as advertisers try to get the best ROI and shift budgets toward the Internet. Fot me the hottest things of any scale on the Chinese Internet right now aren’t hard to spot: SNS, which is totally on fire in China currently and shows no signs of abating just yet; and Internet video. But these are also the two areas where monetization hasn’t exactly been a cakewalk.
I think we’ll still see some innovation on the fringes: some very cool plug-ins, widgets and other micro-apps, like I think we’re already seeing. But as the once copious flows of venture money start dwindling to a trickle, people are going to get more conservative – both the entrepreneurs and the investors.
56minus1: Where are you seeing local Chinese innovation in the digital space, or local Chinese ingenuity among tech entrepreneurs? Where do you expect to see Chinese “digital” innovation coming from in the future?
Kaiser Kuo: I’m seeing local Chinese innovation, but it’s still the rare exception and far from the rule. I’m distrustful of people who either overstate or understate the extent of innovation in the digital space. I’ve seen some pretty laughable examples of both cheerleaders and nay-sayers. Most of what we see is still C2C – Copy to China – but I don’t think that’s because Chinese lack either the ability to innovate or the infrastructure in which to do it. I’m inclined to think it has to do with how venture capital works. You pitch enough VCs and you realize that they don’t have time to hear about your super-disruptive innovation. Not their fault, either: They’re busy guys, they hear a lot of pitches. So for everyone’s comfort and convenience, you end up with a lot of “We’re the [fill in the blank] of China.” You can fill it in with any funded and semi-successful company from the Valley, pretty much. Before this nasty crisis hit, I was saying that I believed that now that the low-hanging C2C fruit had been picked clean and VCs still had a lot of money they had to deploy, they might start reaching into higher branches and finding themselves with more time to listen. I figured entrepreneurs, who from what I’ve seen aren’t short on good ideas, would migrate further up into the canopy, too. But like I said earlier, I’m thinking that’s not as likely to happen soon, with the onset of winter.
56minus1: Who will win the SNS war in China? The C2C war? The microblogging war? The video sharing site war, and any other wars in China you feel qualified to comment on?
Kaiser Kuo: My bet is on Kaixin001.com for SNS, just because it’s really where the cool kids are and it’s got such massive momentum. They grabbed the right niche. You got 51.com, which is still a bit too down market to attract really big brand advertisers, and Xiaonei, which is still too school-days for the white collar urbanites now working at MNCs and such. I’m a totally passive Kaixin user but I get mad numbers of add requests daily. Kaixin’s been milking their second-mover advantage for all it’s worth. They’ve been able to prevent app fatigue, to roll out apps at a controlled pace based on what’s worked elsewhere, and maintain a good user experience.
In C2C there’s little doubt that Taobao will hold its lead, though it’ll give up some ground to Baidu if the latter puts real resources into it. I’m not a big user of the Chinese microblogging services because so many of my Chinese techie friends are already on Twitter, so I don’t really have a sense for how that plays out. None of them have a revenue model anyway, but Lord I do love the microblog phenomenon. Yes, I’m biased in the Internet video war; I’m friends with Gary Wang and Marc Van der Chijs and there’s much I love about the culture of Tudou, but I think from a cold business perspective that Youku’s the horse to bet on.
56minus1: I was going to ask you the boring, obligatory question about censorship, but you have already summed up your thoughts superbly in this keynote from b.TWEEN 08, anything to add?
Kaiser Kuo: Yeah, that speech is about all I have to say on the subject of Internet censorship in China. In case some reader doesn’t feel like listening through that whole thing, I think the best line in it isn’t even mine: It’s Andrew Lih’s. He once said to me, “Chinese Internet users are too busy enjoying the Internet they have to bother worrying about the Internet we think they ought to have.” The main things I really wanted people to take away from that talk were that 1) freedom of speech advocates are barking up the wrong tree in China, focusing on whether this ex-China hosted site or that ex-China hosted site is blocked when they’re mostly irrelevant to 99.9% of Chinese Internet users, when in fact it’s the censorship carried out by operating companies — the BSPs, the BBS operators, etc. — that matters much more to average Chinese people. And 2) that the assumption that because Chinese netizens live in an information-controlled society they’re therefore intellectually stunted just doesn’t help you win friends and influence people.
56minus1: What about your new-ish role at Youku? When and why did get involved? What are you / Youku looking to accomplish?
Kaiser Kuo: I’ve been consulting for Youku since July of this year in a private capacity—that is, I work with Youku but not with an Ogilvy hat on. I love what I do at Ogilvy but I also love being in a start-up environment, especially in a company that’s so well run and shows so much promise, with a team that’s so enthusiastic. I don’t want to blow too much smoke up Youku’s ass, but my impression thus far is that they execute extremely well, and Lord knows they deliver a great user experience. Plus I think Internet video is the coolest thing going. I was basically brought on because Youku needed to boost its international presence: it needed more recognition from the Western media, needed to work more with multinational companies, and needed someone besides Victor (Koo, Youku CEO) who was comfortable presenting and conducting business in English. I’m particularly psyched to have enticed Steven “Flypig” Lin away from Sohu to come work for Youku. He’s doing great stuff already.
56minus1: You are close with Victor Koo, I have always had a great deal of respect for Victor, tell us a bit more about him.
Kaiser Kuo: Victor and I go back a long way. We were at Cal Berkeley at the same time – we’re the same age – and though we didn’t know one another there we did have some friends in common. After working for Bain in the Bay Area for a while, he came out to China with a fund called Richina in 1994 I think. When I met him after he had already joined Sohu as CFO, and he was an advisor to an Internet start-up called ChinaNow.com; I was one of that company’s first hires, working as editor-in-chief. (ChinaNow was sort of a cross between Citysearch and Salon.com. We died in 2001, and that was a real tragedy because I really loved that job.) Anyway, back to Victor: He went on to help founder/CEO Charles Zhang take Sohu public. He became COO, then finally president there. By that time, in late 2005 I think, I was China bureau chief at Red Herring, and when Victor left Sohu he promised me I’d be the first journo he’d tell about his next gig. There was all sorts of speculation that he was going to Google, that he was going to some VC fund or another. So one day, back from a six-month sabbatical where he traveled around the world, he calls me and we meet up, and he tells me that he’s started a “search fund,” which means he raised a bunch of money on nothing but the promise that he and the team he’d gathered around him were going to put it into something good. I wrote a half-hearted story about that, and he promised that when he decided what the “search fund” would actually do, he’d let me know.
Finally, he did let me know: He was doing an Internet video sharing site. I literally laughed out loud. At the time there were so damned many of them in China, and bandwidth costs were already sky-high. I couldn’t see how he could catch Tudou, or some of the other ones that looked promising at the time. But he kicked ass. By the time I left Red Herring at the end of 2006, Youku was already gaining on Tudou, and a year later, they were neck and neck. Youku’s comfortably out ahead now, I’m confident in asserting. I like Tudou: big respect. But I do think Youku has out-executed them this year.
56minus1: Aren’t you also involved at a number of other start ups?
I’m doing a lot of advising to start-ups, mostly in China. It’s one of the best things about the Ogilvy gig — exposing me to some great entrepreneurs and their companies. Some of these include:
Linkool, which makes a super-cool Firefox 3 app called Juice, headed by my good friend Jin Xiaofeng with a supporting cast that includes the amazing Thijs Jacobs as CTO;
Pinyou, a performance marketing company that aspires to be China’s first real behavioral targeting play, founded by an ex-P&G, ex-McKinsey consultant named Grace Huang;
ReKoo, a widget media company headed by former eFriendsNet COO Liu Yong, with apps doing very, very well on a number of open- and semi-open SNSs and other platforms in China, and also builds apps for OpenSocial and Facebook;
Baodou, a P2P video company based here in Beijing founded by whiz-kid named Zhai Yu, and believe me this company has a really disruptive business model I can’t tell you about but wish I could;
And most recently there’s Nutshell (that’s the working name), a social media play still very much in stealth mode, founded by a magician – really, as in rabbit-out-of-the-hat, pick-a-card-any-card magician. He’s taught me some pretty cool tricks already. I still suck at them, but I’m getting there.
I’m also an alternate board member – more of an adviser, really – to Wangyou, and I’m helping out (nothing formal yet) with a cool non-China-focused start-up called Me-2-B that’s a bit like e-Lancer.
Oh, and I’m advising Friendster, too, which has refocused its attention on the markets where it’s really strong—chiefly, Southeast Asia.
Basically I help these companies out where I can with introductions to people I know who might be helpful to them, help out with publicity and with brainstorming, and that sort of thing. Hopefully my network, if not my personally, is useful. It’s not like I can pitch in with the coding or anything.
56minus1: What exactly do you do at Ogilvy? Most people just think of you as a the company’s lead digital badass for China, how accurate is that?
It’s weird how I’ve earned that reputation. I came to Ogilvy with no agency experience whatsoever; I was a journalist, and a rock musician. Sure, I’d worked in a few startups, but never in a marketing capacity. To this day I don’t have much experience actually executing on the kinds of things I think and write about. I’m really just a guy whose job it is to keep up on what’s happening in digital marketing, to answer questions they might have about who’s doing what and how new technologies might impact our business, and to keep people in the company up to date on the latest in digital through internal training sessions and the like. I also meet a lot of companies and do a first “smell test” to see whether they’re people we’d like to work with, or perhaps invest in. Not that the latter happens too frequently, but I really do enjoy that part of the job. Like I said I love the work at Ogilvy: it’s really low-BS, no politics to deal with, no one rides me, and I get to spend a good chunk of my day simply reading industry news, writing about what’s happening, meeting with cool entrepreneurs and industry people, and playing with all sorts of new Internet stuff. I’m also encouraged to do outside projects, like advisory roles of the sort I’ve been taking on of late.
I’m really a digital marketing guy in theory only, not so much in practice. I hope that a year from now I can say I’ve had enough practice that I can stop apologizing to people for my deficiencies, but that’s the truth right now. At Ogilvy there are tons of practitioners who can run circles around me in terms of real technology, and who have years and years more experience than I do in actually doing digital marketing.
[UPDATE: Kaiser has since resigned from his role at Ogilvy. 1/16/09 AjS]
56minus1: In a recent interview you did with Shel Israel you said you “didnt think enough gets written about the specific ways in which the emerging Chinese Internet culture really differs from digital culture in the West, or Japan, or other developed markets.” Here’s your chance.
It wouldn’t be easy to give a sense of the “culture,” because so much of that is wrapped up in language and in the social and political context, and that really would take a book to say anything worthwhile about. What I can do is point to some of the major physical features of the landscape that have either shaped or been shaped by Chinese Internet culture. This is all old hat for anyone living in China and familiar with the Internet, and those people are invited to skip down to the next question.
China’s Internet is its first real public sphere, and within certain limitations – and the envelope’s always being stretched, mind you – it’s a free-for-all of ideas, from the sublime to the idiotic. More of the latter, as you have anywhere, but the point is there’s just a ton being said out there on the BBSs and the blogs, in the SNSs and in the comments on the video sites. Just about anywhere where people can sound off, they are.
China’s Internet is now the meme pool for youth culture. It’s really the crucible of contemporary culture, as I’ve said many times because I have a weakness for alliteration. It’s where new language is born, where new literary talent gets discovered, it’s where music (most of it awful, admittedly) gets popularized, and it’s where brands can either soar or get completely obliterated. Language travels from the Internet to everyday life. A phrase like PK which comes from MMORPGs is now everyday parlance, even to people who’ve never touched a computer. You did that great post on Internet slang, so you know what I’m talking about.
It’s still all about entertainment. China’s Internet experience never had a pre-GUI phase. It was never the exclusive domain of nerds. It had no life before its consumer-facing life. This gives it a very different vibe compared to the Internet in the U.S. This is especially reinforced by the very young average age of a Chinese Internet user relative to his or her American counterpart – I believe the average age of a broadband subscriber in America is 42, compared to 32 in China, and subscribers are generally heads of household, so actual users are probably on average even younger in China. With the entertainment-focused, youth-skewed nature of the Chinese Internet 1) games become a huge part of Internet life, so that online games did about 70% more revenue in 2007 than online advertising, 2) IM is totally huge, relative to the more formal email, with over 80% of Chinese using IM and only about 57% using email, 3) Internet video is massive, both Flash-based and P2P (which, by the way, is hyper-developed in China, 4) Enterprise-focused web services and apps are a relative rarity
Anyway, these are all relatively superficial features of the topography, like I said. What would be more interesting to do would be to look at how Internet users in China, who are predominantly one-child families, the majority having been born after the policies went into effect, relate socially on the Internet. I’d love to see sociological studies of online lives and offline lives. There’s a whole lot of great social science that can be done around the Internet culture. Unfortunately, in English at least, what we’ve seen tends to focus on things like the infamous fenqing (愤青) — the angry youth who supposedly represent this deep-seated anti-westernism lurking menacingly beneath the surface. Sure, there’s some of that. But it’s a whole lot more complicated than you get just from a casual reading of the popular media.
56minus1: Details on your sword collection?
Kaiser Kuo: My wife Fanfan calls it my “scrap metal collection.” It started off with some touristy knick-knacks I bought traveling in Central Asia in the late 90s – a couple of scimitars from Uzbekistan, some knives from Mongolia – and then I really started getting into it, reading up and learning a bit with people I met at antiques markets in Beijing. It’s actually not such an impressive collection, and it’s not limited to swords. I have a couple of bows I’m rather fond of. There’s nothing particularly valuable in it, though, and my wife is pretty much opposed to my adding anything to it for the time being. But I’ve got some cool Tibetan spearheads, various bayonets, cavalry sabers, a falchion from Austria circa World War I, some Japanese katanas that I quite like, and of course a number of Chinese swords from the late Qing. Don’t worry, it’s all safely out of reach of my children.
56minus1: You wrote a humorous piece just before the Olympics that I reposted on Danwei titled “Forbidden Clichés: A guide for visiting journalists” that caused quite a stir among readers / commenters. Any thoughts on what is wrong with all the people that hated on you / the piece?
Kaiser Kuo: I was initially baffled that there were people who took such umbrage to what I thought was obviously a tongue-in-cheek piece. I didn’t imagine anyone would think I intended that the piece actually be read by visiting journalists and taken seriously. Apparently some thought did think just that, and I can see how given that assumption they could have interpreted it as insufferably pedantic. Still, I don’t get how people can work themselves up into such a lather about something as innocuous as a little column in an inconsequential expat magazine.
56minus1: Where is Kaiser Kuo in 10 years and what is he doing?
Kaiser Kuo: One thing’s for sure: I’ll still be in Beijing. I may die of upper respiratory disease, I may die of hunger while stuck in a traffic jam, but I’m staying in Beijing. Hopefully I’ll be writing for a living by then: that’s what I’d really like to be doing. And with luck I’ll still be playing music—doubtless something much more mellow. Maybe a “The Wiggles” for China. Or not. Anyway I’m sure I’ll be worrying myself sick about my daughter, who’ll be a teenager in ten years. Ugh.
56minus1: A few people you admire, and why?
Kaiser Kuo: Some caveats here: I’m limiting myself to living people because the list gets way too long otherwise. And while there are just tons of people I admire, I’m limiting this to admiration of the “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” sort. So here goes:
Richard Dawkins. I admire him because he’s a clear thinker, a first-rate scientist, a terrific writer, and a fearless critic of theism. I’ve read a bunch of his books, most recently The Ancestor’s Tale, and I never tire of him. The God Delusion is just amazing.
Barack Obama. Seriously, I’ve been a big supporter since he announced his candidacy, and I’ve been watching him since the 04 Convention speech. My admiration for him has only grown. I’ve read both his books (as well as listened to both as audio books, read by Obama himself – something I highly recommend!) and the man’s prose is outstanding. Our president elect is a man of obvious integrity, intellect, compassion, and superb political instinct. I would so be his bitch.
Cormac McCarthy: Actually I know very little about the man, but I’ve read every novel of his and I just can’t get enough of him. If you haven’t read Blood Meridian you’ve missed the best American novel since the days of Mark Twain.
56minus1: Don’t you have a book coming out soon?
It’s called Ich Bin Ein Beijinger and it’s a collection of the satirical columns, short stories, and silly doggerel I’ve written for that’s Beijing and The Beijinger over the last seven years. It’s really a Beijing-specific sort of thing that won’t travel beyond the Fifth Ring Road – well, maybe to the Shunyi expat ghetto – and has a pretty short shelf-life, but I’m glad I’m finally getting a damned book out.
56minus1: The top 5 local Chinese bloggers (Chinese language) you regularly read?
Kaiser Kuo: I can barely keep up with all the reading I need to do in English, so when I read Chinese these days, it’s mostly news—and then it’s usually an article that some Twitter friend of mine links to, or that some reliably good recommender-of-reads like Bill Bishop sends me. When I do feel like reading a Chinese blog I’ll read Hung Huang, who’s so reliably funny and cutting, or Keso, who has such good insight into the tech industry. After all these years my Chinese reading is still slow, I’m ashamed to say. I read so much faster in English that often I just choose the path of least resistance.
56minus1: What are you reading these days? Listening to? Watching?
Reading: I’m re-reading Vera Schwarcz’s book about the May Fourth Movement, The Chinese Enlightenment. Unbelievable how much relevance it still has for very recent intellectual history in China. I just finished Tony Judt’s Reappraisals, which is a collection mainly of things he’s written in the last decade or so for the New York Review of Books. That man’s utterly fearless, and represents what’s best in intellectuals, I think. I could never court controversy the way he does. What a mind, though.
Listening: I’m addicted to audio books and podcasts. They are, to me, the best Beijing life-hack there is. If you live here, you’re in cabs, in lines, and on public transportation a lot. Now I have no fear of long cab or subway rides. I subscribe to loads of podcasts from NPR (my favorites being “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” and the Mid-day Magazine), PRI (This American Life, Selected Shorts, The World), the NYT (though the audio quality sucks — what’s up with that?), the tech report from the WSJ… it’s a bit of an obsession with me. As for audio books, I recently listened to a great version of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from Audible. It was amazing. I just downloaded The March by E. L. Doctorow. I love Audible. I keep those guys in business. As for music, I’ve been listening to a singer-songwriter named David Berkeley a bunch, and to this dark progressive Metal band from Sweden called Evergrey. They rock.
Watching: I just watched the whole two-plus seasons of Chapelle’s Show, which my colleague at Ogilvy lent me. I think Dave Chapelle is a serious comic genius, and now that Obama’s won the Whitehouse, it’s time for him to come back to Comedy Central. Recently my wife and I watched the first couple of seasons of Chuck, which was good silly fun to wind down with in the evening. I’m catching episodes of the new HBO show True Blood on a certain Chinese Internet video site which shall remain nameless, and quite enjoying that.
56minus1: Thinking big picture here, what has the Internet done to change China over the past 10 years or so, and how do u see it shaping China’s future?
Kaiser Kuo: That’s what my next book’s about, hopefully! No spoilers here.
56minus1: Thanks Kaiser