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COMMERCIAL PROPERTY | editor, Malaysia

PwC's chief digital officer shares insights on digital media and business strategies

Michael Graham is one of the judges in this year’s Malaysian Technology Excellence Awards.

Michael Graham is the chief digital officer of PwC, a global network of firms delivering world-class assurance, tax, and consulting services for businesses. He drives PwC Malaysia and Vietnam's ambition to “walk the digital talk” in developing business strategies fit for the digital landscape, and aims to deliver these digital solutions internally and to their clients (B2B) and customers (B2B2C).

As someone whose role is pivotal in providing leadership to the firm, its platforms, solutions and experience for the assurance, tax and advisory businesses at PwC, the Malaysia Technology Excellence Awards 2021 judge sat down with Singapore Business Review to talk about digital media, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the “new normal” in Singaporean businesses.

Which markets or sectors are your main focus? Can you share with us your work experience or any backstory that has contributed to your professional career?

In my consulting capacity, I focus on the telecoms, media and technology (TMT) sector across Southeast Asia—everything from strategy through to execution. My background is “man and boy” PwC; I joined the Bristol office in the United Kingdom and immediately worked on the IPO of Orange (or Rabbit as it was) and got bitten by the TMT “bug”. I worked on worldwide projects in that sector for the succeeding 15 plus years, delivering strategy and operating model projects as TMT pivoted more so to “tech” and innovated in that “converged” space, particularly media and financial services.

The indomitable rise of digital in the TMT sector, but also where TMT companies were enablers for so many, resulting in my focus widening. The current CDO role spans all sectors and focuses on how we can demystify “digital” for companies in Malaysia and Vietnam as they go through their own journeys.

How has digital media evolved since the onset of Covid-19, and what shifts do you expect as a result of the new normal situation?

In general—and there are plenty of statistics on this—widespread adoption of digital and digital media has surged. It was surging pre-pandemic, but accelerated further given the variety of lockdown circumstances that prevailed everywhere. The acceleration arguably proved a boon for most types of publishers—video and more traditional (ie. news)—and particularly those with subscription models.

The advertising community suffered in the early stages, since the brands they represented were cautious in terms of spending, but lately have returned to pre-COVID-19 spend levels since there are few alternatives. A couple of interesting topics have and will impact things: the removal of cookies in Chrome (estimated to happen early in 2022), will mean targeting and attribution will be tougher for all unsophisticated publishers or content owners. Combine that with the other surge in the data topic, be that related to privacy or consent management as well as to the “open data” opportunities that exist with companies seeking to leverage their insights with others. The latter will drive significant changes in digital media, as any “data owner” will need to think more, invest more and establish more “trust” with their audiences, viewers, subscribers or consumers—since it is after all “their” data.

The pandemic is pushing many businesses to go fully digital. How can they walk the digital talk in developing their business strategies?

For me, it's a combination of mindset and mechanics, the mechanics being the acquisition of technologies, software and systems that enable digital or the technical skills to programme a robot for some RPA. The mindset is that big shift at an individual and team level: Do they dare to try and are they curious and empowered to the challenge? But more so at a collective, cultural level: How do you balance innovation and trials with being listed? Can you afford “beta” being released into the market? Are your consumers (retail or enterprise) accepting of what “beta” means?

Therefore, in my opinion, companies need to invest now to expose their staff to digital mechanics and mindset—behavioural changes, but also allow those trained staff to apply, to practice the skills they've applied. There is no point doing an enterprise-wide agile or design thinking course, if those skills can't be applied in their day-to-day. I personally like to see companies experiment with small teams in defined channels, markets, or with a subset of products to test and learn, for me the trick is to scale it or kill (and reimagine). We like to say you don't need a digital strategy, but a strategy for a digital world.

Which trends do you think will define the digital landscape in the years to come?

In two words: artificial intelligence. For me (and many others) it's the next big growth driver— where cloud and 5G will enable access (broadly defined) or the “how”. AI will drive the content, usage and ultimately the “what and why”. AI will make this a reality—everything from recommendation engines to industrial decisions across every sector—the benefits from smarter application of data have been clearly outlined.

There are a myriad of challenges with AI—we typically add a word “responsible” to any reference made to AI. The complexities, from moral dilemma considerations to how you put sufficient control or “humans in the loop” will take time to bed-down, and more time still for governments to provide the policy guidelines necessary for companies to begin widespread adoption. Add to that the capability is scarcity in the region, and “responsible AI” might take some time, but it will be a game-changer across the board.

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