Robert Sawatzky
Sep 25, 2018

Chris Foster’s bid to revive Y&R

The Asia president's blueprint involves heavy lifting on talent and culture, along with new regional hubs and future acquisitions.

Chris Foster’s bid to revive Y&R

One of the first things Chris Foster did when he arrived in Singapore last November to take up the reins at Y&R Asia was to review the last 10 pitch decks. To his dismay, every one of them started with a TVC. “It sounds archaic,” he says. “It was like ‘okay guys, we all know where the world is going’.”

Over-dependence on a tired format signalled a big job ahead – a shift in mindset. 

“Y&R is a great brand in need of reinvention,” Foster explains in an interview with Campaign outlining his vision for new thinking, structure & capabilities. Brand perception and decision-making is no longer what it once was. It’s now wound so closely to ecommerce, Foster says, that if you can’t put a brand one click away from transaction on any piece of communication in markets like China, “you’re completely irrelevant.”

“We must be able to think that way and deliver that way when the history has been very different,” he told Campaign.

Indeed, Y&R is coming off a recent rough patch. Last year the agency suffered a rare double-drop in Campaign’s annual report card, suffering a drop in new business and a rash of staff exits.

But Foster has admittedly spent much of his career “fixing stuff” – from streamlining Saatchis in Tokyo to rescuing P&G’s laundry portfolio in New York – and likes a good challenge. So he jumped at the chance to return to Asia for a third time, “where consumerism will lead for the next 10 years” and where Y&R’s core brand assets and key staff remained strong.

“There are great fundamentals in Y&R. That’s we need to get back to. The belief in people. The belief in putting clients first. The belief in leading breakthrough thinking. The belief in creative transformation. Those things need to be sitting at the core of culture to be a success.”

Y&R’s identity crisis

Such are familiar refrains, and the ‘getting back to basics’ speech is usually brought out in  organisations that have lost focus and need a sharper identity. Foster says Y&R is now regaining its sense of self, which partly involves structural support from parent company WPP.  Earlier this year, the holding company announced a share-swap deal with Dentsu that saw it give up its 49% stake in Dentsu Y&R in Japan in exchange for fully acquiring a number of Wunderman and Y&R joint ventures with Dentsu across Asia-Pacific, including Y&R in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. Later in August, WPP then bowed out of its joint-ventures with Rediffusion in India.

Useful decades ago to extend Y&R’s reach in key markets, these relationships, Foster says, were no longer optimal. The cost, taking a step back in key markets like Japan, is apparently worth it for Foster. 

“Y&R needs to stand on its own two feet and define itself as an entity, he says. “We’re not [Dentsu] Y&R or Y&R Rediffusion. We’re Y&R. That’s now clear.”

Foster is equally pragmatic when it comes to client consolidation. In March, around half of Y&R’s Beijing staff were folded into Wunderman Beijing in a move to consolidate the global Dell account. 

Foster not only agreed to the move but was a backer of it. “One of my tenets is always put the needs of the client first,” he says. “The Wunderman network was doing a great job of servicing them and it just made sense to me.”

More actively within Y&R Asia, Foster has been reshaping the agency’s structure as reflected in a number of appointments this summer that now sees former Havas Singapore CEO Andrea Conyard made chief executive of Southeast Asia overseeing Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Myanmar; Y&R’s former Hong Kong general manager Beverley Ho is now in a new regional business development role.

Changes in China

Damien Tew, meanwhile, has been brought over from Digitas Hong Kong to head up a new southern China hub in what amounts to a splitting of Y&R’s Greater China market.  In the north, Annie Boo continues to run the Shanghai operations along with Y&R’s remaining presence in Beijing.

The China team has already scored some key wins this summer including brand strategy and creative work for GNC on its digital and ecommerce platforms and the creative AOR mandate for Puma, while US supermarket chain Kroger is bringing new ecommerce work into China. Most heartening for Foster were that the first two pitches were won without a TVC in sight.

But it’s in the Pearl River Delta region that Foster wants to shake things up. Y&R currently has operations in Guangzhou, long home to packaged goods marketers and dusty real estate clients, and in Hong Kong where many international brands are based. “In future I’m not sure if we need to have that,” says Foster, noting there’s far more synergy in the region now. “I would like to see more around Shenzhen,” he says, eyeing the Chinese technology and innovation darlings that have lured Ogilvy, Edelman and Hill + Knowlton Strategies to open offices there in the past year.. 

Centres of gravity

Eventually, Foster would like to see a technology and ecommerce-focused hub in the PRD, forming one of three new Y&R centres of excellence that could service the entire region. 

Another would be a brand consultancy and advisory services hub in Bangkok, an office that has long taken the lead with agency’s Brand Asset Valuator (BAV) tool.  Foster, a BAV enthusiast, wants it to play a larger role in Asia to differentiate the agency, especially now that they’ve added ‘BAV Social’ – essentially real-time brand value monitoring on social media.

Foster’s third centre would be in Singapore focusing on his notion of ‘creative intelligence’, a combination of artificial intelligence plus human intelligence, using data creatively along with components like behavioural economics and blockchain. The planning for this is still in the early stages, but Y&R has held initial talks with Singapore’s Economic Development Board.

Talent for the future

Of course, drawing up futuristic-sounding centres is one thing, but actually shifting the business in that direction is quite another, requiring both the right talent and mindset.

Foster claims he has tripled Y&R’s training budget in Asia despite huge pressure to cut costs and improve margins. Technology and digital skills training he says, is happening both regionally and locally, in partnership with core clients like Telekom Malaysia and Danone in Indonesia. 

But training is not enough, admits Foster, who wants his talent digital by nature not just nurture. “Agencies do a big disservice to their clients when they show up and say ‘Joey your account director is now going to be your ecommerce expert’.”

That’s why upcoming acquisitions will be crucial, especially in China, Foster says, so they execute at scale with both the right expertise and new capabilities. “We have to. It’s the only way to accelerate our growth."

There’s one other rule Foster has about talent. “I have a 'no assholes' policy. At this stage in my career you want to work with people you like.”

Campaign Asia

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