Stephen Allan oversees 5,800
people in 106 offices in 86 countries for WPP media agency
MediaCom, which was named at the Festival of Media Asia Awards on
In an interview with Mumbrella's Asia
editor Robin Hicks in Singapore - Allan's third visit to Asia this
year - the Brit talks about what winning awards means to media
agencies, standing up to unreasonable clients, and why
the days of global bosses visiting Asia to give the locals "a
patronising pat on the head" are over.
MediaCom has just won Agency
of the Year at Festival of Media Asia. Do you think media agencies
care as much as creative agencies about awards these
I can't speak for other agencies. But
for me, awards are a way of benchmarking our work next to our
competitors and our clients' competitors. Awards are about seeing
how our work stacks up against the rest; winning or not winning is
an expression of everything you've done over the last year. Winning
network of the year showed me that we're getting great work out -
and not just from one office. We had contributions from Singapore,
India and Australia.
It is said that when global
bosses are in town, they tend to trot out the same old phrases
about Asia - that it shows potential, and is of high strategic
importance. What is your take on Asia for MediaCom?
I've been in the global role since
2008, and during that time we've grown by 232 per cent. Yes, we
were a lot smaller to start with, but now Asia Pacific is a quarter
of our business globally. Now, there's no way you can describe Asia
as emerging or developing - it's a major contributor to our
What's your biggest market by
China followed by Australia.
How much bigger is China than
China is 50 per cent bigger than
Going back to your first question,
GroupM forecasts that - for the first time ever - Asia Pacific ad
spend exceeds North America and will grow by eight per cent this
year - much faster than Western Europe or North America. If we
continue to see growth in China, even if that growth is slower than
in recent years, we expect Asia Pacific to soon make up 40 per cent
of our business.
The days of global CEOs visiting the
region to give Asia folks a patronising pat on the head are well
and truly over.
The work that we're doing in parts of
this region are often better than in other regions. That's best
proven by looking at our key client relationships - P&G and
Coke. Our leadership on those accounts is led by Asian people based
If there is an area of the
media agency business that is under the most scrutiny at the
moment, it is probably agency trading desks. Do you think clients
are right to be so concerned about 'arbitrage' (not declaring how
much margin is made on the trading of digital media), something
that GroupM's trading desk Xaxis has been accused of?
I think that every agency is operating
using different models, and I can't comment on other agency
practices. But clients are right to ask questions. And more
importantly, what is the agency's answer?
Xaxis is not a typical agency trading
desk, in my view. It's a provider of premium inventory and
guarantees an audience and a price. A client has to opt in; we
don't force them to use it. A client goes in knowing what they're
paying and knowing what they get back. Hopefully Xaxis will
prove the cost effectiveness of its product in time.
MediaCom, particularly in
London, has a strong reputation for its culture and regularly
features highly in polls of companies people want to work for. Can
you export culture?
The answer is yes, you can - although
there will be local interpretations and differences.
We talk about 'People first, better
results'. I wrote that line in 2003. We lived and breathed that
ethos in London [Allan has worked at what is now known as MediaCom
UK since 1982], which is about creating a great work place and a
culture of learning and coaching. MediaCom in Australia also
features in best companies to work for surveys. Can you take a
philosophy and distribute it elsewhere? Yes. Do all offices do it
equally well? Probably not.
One of the things I'm most proud of at
MediaCom UK is the depth and breath of the business, and the core
of people who have worked together for a long time. It's not an old
boys club, but we have a long pipeline of talent coming through the
business. Nick Lawson followed me into the role of CEO of MediaCom
UK. Jane Ratcliffe [MediaCom UK's chairman] succeeded Nick, and
Karen Blackett [MediaCom UK's CEO] succeeded Jane.
Sir Alex Ferguson, who was probably
the best football manager of all time, talks about bringing in
talent in from the bottom up. It's not about creating a great team,
he says. It's about creating a great club. That philosophy is what
delivered those 38 trophies for Manchester United, and what brought
the likes of Giggs, Beckham and Scholes through his
system. Now, look at West ham. They had great talent like
Frank Lampard, Michael Carrick and Rio Ferdinand. But they couldn't
It's critical to create a culture of
learning and a business of opportunity. If smart people have
nowhere to go within your company, they will leave. We have a
business that is constantly growing, but we have to create new
opportunities for our best people. I passionately believe
that. And that approach is embeddable in any market.
When I look at our staff surveys,
where our people can anonymously say they what really think about
working here, you'd expect the first thing they talk about is
money. But it isn't. It is always about 'What am I learning?'
In Asia, at times we find that there
is a resentment towards companies that bring in expats. I get the
sense that some people do not want foreigners coming into their
market and taking local jobs, although at the same time these same
people want the opportunity to work overseas. My argument in
those situations is always that we have to look for the best talent
wherever they're from. I don't care about the sex, religion or
colour of any of my staff. The goal is to grow talent locally and
constantly and get to the point where our Asian markets become net
exporters of talent.
What excites you the most
about the future of media over the next five years, and what
worries you the most?
What excites me the most is
addressability - by that I mean tackling the old cliché of not
knowing which half of your advertising works. We're moving away
from that as we're able to address people on a one to one basis. As
a company, MediaCom no longer talks about ourselves as a media
agency. We talk about ourselves as a content and connections
agency. And by content, we mean anything from a tweet through to TV
I was asked recently if I was worried
about the future of media agencies. Are we becoming irrelevant, as
the industry embraces automated trading? I said that right
now the whole world of communications is more complicated than it's
ever been. And every client I talk to says the same thing in
different words - they need people who can work across the system
rather than in silos and demystify media. They want solution
providers, and that is what we are.
The greatest threat to our business is
people. And by this I mean this industry losing its brightest to
other industries. We are under other pressures, such as
the rise of procurement, but we still have to be able to pay
our people fairly. That comes about by being paid fairly by
MediaCom Australia recently withdrew
from a pitch for Pacific Brands. We took the decision not to
participate. Mumbrella covered the news quite well without
getting anyone in a court room. Agencies have to get to a point
where they can say no. Agencies can't say yes to unprofitable
business. If they do, it's a race to the bottom.
Last year two young
advertising executives in Asia - one in China and another in
Indonesia, died - allegedly from overwork. Are young people in
media being taken advantage of?
Those incidences are very sad. The
first thing I'd say is that clients can be very demanding.
Sometimes they don't respect the right of their agency team to have
a private life. As an employer, I'm not looking for people to be in
the office until late at night. People who have a healthy personal
life outside of work is a good thing; when they come back into
office, they tend to be in a fresher state of mind.
Work-life balance tends to be a term
that is used lightly, but we're constantly looking at that. I have
to rely on local management to ensure our people's welfare is
looked after. I wished I could look after 5,800 people
individually, but anyone who knows me will say I'm the worse
example of maintaining work-life balance, as I'm always on. But
does that mean I expect the same from others? No. I don't want
people to be tired in the morning. Sometimes agencies fail in that
regard, as the pressures of client deadlines and new business
pitches can be very challenging.
I won't tolerate unreasonable client
behaviour. You have to stand up to clients, as it can get to the
point of abuse. Occasionally you get the maverick kind of client.
And I have to rely on my local management to eek out those
situations. In those incidences, you have to be prepared to say
What is the hardest thing
about your job?
The unknown. Working in one market,
you usually know the score and what to expect. You understand the
political infrastructure and economies at play. In a global job,
you wake up and look at your inbox and never know what you're going
to find. There will always be good and bad news.
Yesterday, the first thing I noticed
was an earthquake just outside Los Angeles - and we have office in
Santa Monica. It was rude awakening, but everyone was ok, so it
wasn't so bad. In other markets, it could be flooding in
Thailand, or something like we've seen in Ukraine. Or a client
saying we're going to review. It's a rollercoaster and I take
everything very personally. I care about everything, probably too
much at times.
First published here on Mumbrella Asia