Commentary

Tencent's China-Centric Take On Tech For Good

In the digital marketing industry the Law of Large Numbers means marketing platforms that harness the most comprehensive data drive the most results. That is why Tencent is now one of the most important media companies in the world.

Tencent was originally created to build Chinese versions of successful U.S. Internet services. With much of its Western inspiration mired in controversy, introspection and legislation, Tencent is now charting its own path. At the recent Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, Seng Yee Lau, Tencent's chairman of group marketing and global branding, mapped his company's future in a presentation titled “Realizing Technology for Good in China: a Roadmap.” 

Anthropologists believe civilizations are reflected in their tools. In a few profound ways, the vision Tencent laid out at Cannes, contrasted greatly with the ongoing conversation in the West about the future of digital platforms.
Given the power of digital platforms to build brands and drive commerce, it is important for their business partners to understand how and why these platforms make decisions. 

At the Cannes Lions, a number of tech companies made similar arguments that their products were a force for good in the world. However, the execution of that mission differed.

Despite the conversation around regulation, the West still talks about technology as enabling individual potential and personal expression. For example, IBM shared case studies on how the Watson API allowed third-party developers to build tools that assist in healthcare or disaster response. 

Like other Chinese big media companies, Tencent is following the “One Single Dragon” () principle, in which they connect everything themselves.  This is unlike Western media groups, which that create platforms for third-parties to connect and proliferate.  Tencent also operates where government policy plays a stronger role in their operation. Tencent’s vision shared at Cannes seemed grounded in the Confucius/Communist view that leaves no one behind and protects the larger community against the threat from individual evil actors.

Mr. Lau even quoted Edmund Burke: “The triumph of evil comes when a good man does nothing.” Tencent shared case studies of how they used AI powered cameras to diagnose Parkinson’s and tools to limit screen time to help children’s educational outcomes. The key differentiator from the Watson cases was that these were tools built by Tencent and not by third parties operating on the Tencent platform.

A key principle of growth in Silicon Valley has been to erect platforms that third parties can build upon. Google AdSense, Amazon Marketplace, Login With Facebook, are all services that powered independent businesses. While Western companies grapple with how much data can be shared, we can expect the walls of Tencent’s walled garden to grow even higher.

Tencent executives will decide how their users’ experiences will be consistent with their beliefs about what enables a more prosperous civilization. And more likely than not, what comes of those choices will be dramatically different from those of the West.

While not a Sino expert, expect Tencent to continue to develop tools that:

*Focus on China above other countries.
*Broaden access to digital services for Chinese citizens.
*Fight against the tragedy of the commons, like unmoderated speech or climate change.

Given its massive data footprint, the Tencent platform will continue to offer exponential gains to its marketing partners. Brands looking to leverage the Tencent platform should:

*Accept that Tencent will control the data and the experience.  
*Use Tencent’s “full stack” of solutions.
*Be mindful that in China, social buzz is nationalistic and aligned with national principles. Therefore, pursue experiences that broaden access to the brand’s benefit. Promote the value of a harmonious society rather than enable individual expression.

As our digital platforms mature and evolved, they serve as a Rorschach test between divergent world views. Ultimately, the difference comes down to definitions of property rights. Is the data generated when someone uses a technology product owned by the user, the person who made the product, or society overall?

In the global digital economy, borders are not virtual. Businesses looking to successfully partner with one digital media platform versus another will increasingly need to understand the broader system they inhabit.

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