Corporate China

Weibo: Tencent's Pony Ma finds new public face

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 November, 2013, 1:28pm
UPDATED : Monday, 11 November, 2013, 4:05pm

Tencent (0700.HK) founder Pony Ma is suddenly shedding his low-key style with a flurry of public appearances and speeches, which have been the talk of the microblogging world over the past week. I've admired Pony for quite a while now, as he's quietly built up Tencent into one of the world's biggest Internet companies with his strong product development skills and early bet on social networking services (SNS). But public speaking has never been a strong suit for this Internet visionary who is one of China's richest men, which is evident in his mundane series of appearances and mostly mundane comments over the last week.

While most of these appearances were probably scheduled weeks or perhaps even months ago, this sudden gallop into the spotlight for one of China's most famous Internet figures is noteworthy because it comes as Tencent faces a sudden assault from e-commerce leader Alibaba. Industry watchers will known I'm referring to the recent attack by Alibaba's outspoken founder Jack Ma, who has taken every opportunity to promote his company's recent launched Laiwang as an alternative to Tencent's hugely popular WeChat mobile instant messaging service.

According to my count, Pony was on the VIP list for at least three major events over the last week, including one here in my adopted hometown of Shanghai and two closer to Tencent's home in Guangdong province. Pony also made a rare posting on one of his SNS accounts, drawing attention to a humorous new ad for Tencent's Yixun e-commerce service that hopes to challenge Alibaba's dominant TMall.  

The first of Pony's events last week happened in Shanghai, where he took to the stage with Jack at an event to formally launch an insurance joint venture in which Tencent and Alibaba are minority stakeholders. I tried to attend the event at Fudan University where I teach, but tickets were in such short supply that I couldn't get in. I later heard that Alibaba's recent assault on Tencent only came up briefly in some comments from Jack, and that Pony wouldn't get drawn into the debate. Perhaps not surprisingly, all the microblog posts I could find came from Alibaba executives, including one from Alibaba PR chief Gu Jianbing saying Laiwang could thrive alongside WeChat. 

Pony's other two public appearances included one at an event hosted by TV manufacturing giant TCL (1070.HK; Shenzhen: 000100) and another at a forum in the city of Dongguan not far from Tencent's hometown in Shenzhen. TCL chief Li Dongsheng made several posts about Pony's attendance at his event, including one where he quotes Pony saying a world without WeChat would be a "disaster". I found that quote a bit humorous, as Pony's low-key style usually precludes such drama. A post from a government official at the Dongguan event gives some key points of Pony's speech that look quite technical and less interesting. 

As I've said above, Pony's recent series of appearances were probably planned weeks or months in advance and thus weren't necessarily directly tied to Alibaba's recent assault. But clearly Pony is trying to raise his profile, and even create some drama with his remarks like the "disaster" one. While some of his remarks do look a bit clumsy and most of his speeches mundane, this series of events could perhaps foreshadow the rise of a new Pony, as he tries to become a more public face for Tencent.

Such a raised profile could be key as Tencent tries to go global through a series of recent moves, including its purchase of a stake in leading game designer Activision Blizzard (Nasdaq: ATVI) and its opening of a US office as part of WeChat's global expansion. I'm personally looking forward to Pony's move into the spotlight, as it could provide the world with some insight about the thinking of this quiet but also hugely successful Internet entrepreneur.

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