Atifa Silk
Mar 7, 2016

Charles Courtier: Exclusive interview

THE ATIFA SILK INTERVIEW It’s been a challenging period for MEC, but CEO Charles Courtier believes that the agency’s digital and data growth strategy will have an impact.

New economy: Courtier says change is a must to work with disruptive clients like Netflix and now is the perfect time for new blood, new energy and renewal in Asia.
New economy: Courtier says change is a must to work with disruptive clients like Netflix and now is the perfect time for new blood, new energy and renewal in Asia.

MEC wants to sit at the intersection of data, technology and creativity. For the GroupM agency’s global CEO, Charles Courtier, this ambition to be much more digital and data-oriented is about balancing revenues, resources and talent, globally. During a recent visit to Hong Kong, Courtier discussed his agenda for the region, where the business has faced a period of challenges, marked by a string of pitches, some notable wins (Calvin Klein, Uber and Netflix) and several key losses (Mercedes-Benz China, Singtel, Citibank global and Singapore Airlines).

With new leadership in place following the departure of Stephen Li, the focus is on change and on building up MEC’s business for the future. Peter Vogel, who is in the top seat as regional CEO, is leading Courtier’s charge in Asia and the design and push of his data, digital and growth agenda. There are signs of improvement: there has been some upside in Australia and India with over US$25 million in billings and in China in excess of US$50 million, leading to average growth of 15 per cent in the region, according to Courtier. He notes that across the major markets, MEC’s Recma rankings from both a billings and a qualitative perspective have stepped up. Courtier, who grew up in Sri Lanka and India, believes that digital technology and data meant the role of the media agency is changing rapidly. And to succeed, media agencies need to integrate these offerings as strategic resources within the business.

Atifa Silk: What’s driving transformation in your business?

Charles Courtier: We’re working with Netflix in Australia, and in China and India we have won Uber. It’s these types of new-age clients that are accelerating the change in our organisation because they work and demand very different things to your traditional clients. On average, across the region, we’ve had 15-per cent growth [in 2015, year-on-year]. Our Recma rankings from both a billings and a qualitative perspective have stepped up. The evolution and change of the business is exciting, particularly given the shift in our digital billings.

Atifa Silk: Are budgets in Asia shifting as quickly as elsewhere?

Charles Courtier: If you combine digital and data together, that’s now more than 50 per cent of our revenue. That’s changed radically in the last 15-18 months when it was about 30 per cent.

There is a modernising streak in what we’re doing in MEC right now, and it’s happening as much in Asia-Pacific as anywhere else in the world.

The migration of billings is obviously a worldwide phenomenon, but it’s definitely gone massively that way for us, particularly in Asia-Pacific over the last 12 months, as we’ve seen a huge uptick of digital spend and data services, including analytics insights, in general. The region is divided and in APAC our averages are around 50 per cent in terms of our revenue, but bear in mind that certain markets, such as Taiwan and India for example, are still very TV-focused or dominant markets, and they’re lagging the rest of the region. However, in markets such as China our clients are spending up to 70 per cent of their money in digital, including video-on-demand, which is essentially transferring TV dollars to the digital platform.

Atifa Silk: Your fastest-growing client?

Charles Courtier: Our fastest-growing client globally is Netflix by some stretch. They are growing at incredible speed around the world. And, as you know, they are not bricks-and-mortar company, so we have to function in a very different way. You’ve got to be much quicker, much more flexible and much more fluid as an organisation typically to work with a client like Netflix than historically, as agencies, we are necessarily used to. There’s a great challenge for us in that and, selfishly, it’s fantastic for driving our own development because you’ve got to keep up and move with a new-economy client like that. They don’t stop and wait for you to catch up. We’re having a similar experience with Uber. The industry tends to focus on the P&Gs of this world. While there is nothing wrong with these clients, the massive challenge that all agencies have is: how we evolve, adapt and change. And clients like Uber or Netflix, which went into Australia with a 100-per cent digital launch, are important in driving the speed of that change.

Atifa Silk: How is this change impacting your talent strategy?

Charles Courtier: Developing the digital and data side of our business means rebalancing not only from a revenue point of view but also talent. Rather than simply through attrition, so not replacing like-for-like, we are bringing in more specialists with these skill sets. If you keep the pressure on the organisation to do that, it’s actually quite shocking to find out that it works.

It’s important to understand that digital and data are not silos or a department in the agency because they are the future of the business. So ensuring the talent and development of our people is happening across the board. We’re not just training or not allowing specialist skills to simply sit in a dark corner to be called on only when needed. Everybody needs to have an understanding and the skills in that part of our business. The other piece that is often forgotten is around strategic planning. You need people to take a strategic point of view, gather all the communication channels together and weave a story together for the whole business.

Atifa Silk: What are your expectations in terms of growth for Peter Vogel and the agency’s business in Asia?

Charles Courtier: The expectations are quite significant now. Peter Vogel [CEO of MEC in Asia] has already started making a number of changes either in terms of product focus or key positions. You will see more of that in coming months. We expect growth from the region. Change is a good thing and this is the perfect time for new blood, new energy and a renewal of what we want to achieve. There is a modernising streak in what we’re doing in MEC right now, and it’s happening as much in Asia-Pacific as anywhere else in the world.

Professional CV: Charles Courtier

  • 2002 CEO, MEC Global
  • 1989 Media director, Y&R EMEA
  • 1985 Media manager, Connell May & Stevenson

Atifa Silk: What will your business look like in two years?

Charles Courtier: There are now so many different pieces to our business. But what’s common is our focus, which ultimately has to be on the consumer or the customer who sits at the centre of everything that we do, whether it’s digital, data or content. It’s all wrapped around the consumer journey.

So, how is the consumer behaving and how do we engage, change or make a reaction happen that leads to business growth for our clients? It’s a complicated business and the focus must be on the consumer. I honestly believe that, when we think about two years from now, there’s going to be a whole load of things that we’re doing that none of us know about. But driving that change will be the consumer and how the consumer uses technology, entertainment or ecommerce, for example. As long as we keep our eyes on that and react to it, we will know we’ve got the organisation going in the right place. Our ability to be able to adapt and change is incredibly important. Our biggest challenge is speed and that’s probably the most frightening part. That’s exactly the same for our clients. Relatively speaking, it’s easy to see what you want to do or to see it coming, but then to adapt and make that change happen in an organisation as big as MEC at speed is one of our biggest challenges.

Atifa Silk: What’s your view on the new model at Publicis?

Charles Courtier: They’re definitely doing the right thing. We’re all surprised it didn’t happen some time ago. We did it 12 years ago and it’s not an easy thing to do. It wasn’t easy for us and I’m sure they will have some trouble with it as well. It can be rather tense internally. That tension has gone for us. We don’t know the internal politics, but they’re an organisation that you have to respect and they will be busy with how they get themselves organised as a group. It does look like the way WPP has been structured for a while and the horizontal streak that Martin [Sorrell, CEO, WPP] talks about that goes through the middle of it. I don’t know Publicis well enough to comment, but if you look at WPP or GroupM or this structure of horizontality, these things work well because it’s a culture of collaboration that’s been fostered and developed over time. It’s more than just structure: you have to develop a sort of camaraderie and collaboration that goes across something as wide as WPP, let alone GroupM. I am not sure if there are any shortcuts to that. Martin has been banging on about horizontality for years and he would still say that we’re far from perfect. But I’m certain that we do it more often and better than anyone else.

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