“We're entering an era of simplification,” says Dentsu International’s APAC CEO Ashish Bhasin in his first interview since Dentsu Aegis Network announced it would be rebranded simply as Dentsu, but known officially as Dentsu International outside of Japan.
“I've always been a big believer of one P&L and in one company, Dentsu, and I think this signifies us moving into what we are now calling a ‘teaming platform’,” he tells Campaign Asia-Pacific, noting Dentsu does not want to be seen as a ‘holding company’. “Bringing everything together under one umbrella, so to speak, gives us the agility as well as the ability to bring to our clients all the services in that.”
Dentsu had already begun simplifying its international operations last year, first organizing all its APAC markets outside of Japan into three main geographic clusters (Greater North, Greater South and ANZ) and then streamlining its offerings into three main lines of business (creative, media, CRM).
But the new ‘one Dentsu’ vision Bhasin outlines—where “it makes no sense to have artificial divisions” and “anything that inhibits teaming” is broken down, where clients are given the best talent from any agency—moves Dentsu much more closely towards a model resembling that of Publicis, where internal agency brands are diminished in favour of Groupe solutions.
“More than focusing on brands, I would like to focus on lines of businesses and skill sets,” says Bhasin. “When a client comes to Dentsu, the client should get a full range of marketing-communication services without having to bother that ‘I'm only a Vizeum client’ or ‘I’m only an iProspect client’ or ‘I'm only a Dentsumcgarrybowen client’. Once you are a Dentsu client, it should be our aim to make sure that he or she has access to as many services as we can possibly offer.”
The challenge of building one Dentsu for all
This larger vision is shared by most holding companies to some degree these days. But truly implementing it fully across brands is a long, intensive journey involving time, capital and resources as Publicis might attest. For Dentsu, the name change alone is going to take time to implement, Bhasin says, involving permissions and government applications across 150 markets.
But truly building a cooperative global network will take much longer, perhaps especially for Dentsu, which has faced significant challenges in the past in bringing its international and Japanese operations together. In recent months, several former DAN executives have described to Campaign a climate of distrust within Dentsu in the past, where Japanese bosses assigned to overseas markets failed to earn the respect of local employees and where internal loyalties came to be aligned with competing factions between Tokyo and London (and now the US).
Bhasin rejects the notion that there are competing centers of power within Dentsu, arguing the Dentsu-Aegis merger was not only a great business fit but one of the best examples of two cultures coming together.
“Of course, when something like this happens, there will always be some bumps on the way,” he admits, but quickly adds that the excitement and trust level within Dentsu “is probably the highest that I've ever seen.”
Cause for optimism
There are a couple of reasons behind Bhasin’s enthusiasm. One big difference is the buy-in from new global management, embodied in DAN's hiring last April of CEO Wendy Clark, who brings new unifying energy and a can-do attitude to the business. That hiring had been preceded by a litany of senior exits across DAN globally and especially in APAC, many of whom felt more aligned with either Aegis in the UK or Dentsu in Japan. Bhasin suggests some views of the network may be coloured by the experiences of those who have since left.
“There will always be some people who would be disgruntled, and therefore I'm not surprised that they would say [there was mistrust]," he says. "I think the big difference now is that the entire management team, right, from top to bottom is completely committed and very excited, seeing this as a great opportunity of one ‘teaming platform‘ from which all of us can take advantage of.”
But by going into more global pitches together, working on client accounts together and collaborating more often using more of Japan’s technology and resources, cohesion is building more quickly, he argues.
Covid has been another catalyst for this, Bhasin says. He claims the pandemic has been an accelerant of client-centricity, forcing Dentsu to seek out efficiencies and forego traditional silos, bringing different skill sets together in the name of getting business moving.
More Vizeum-iProspect-like synergies?
One example of this has been the folding of Vizeum into iProspect in Australia this summer and again in the UK as just announced this week. The announcements were paired with statements from Dentsu about its fast-tracked evolution during Covid to be more digitally integrated and agile.
With less focus on maintaining separate agency brands, Campaign asked Bhasin if the Vizeum brand might disappear altogether, especially in this region where it has long flown under the radar.
“Vizeum is very much a viable brand in APAC,” Bhasin explains, but is in different stages of development in different markets where it will have its own strategy. “If it makes sense bringing something together, we should definitely encourage it. On the other hand, if it makes sense keeping it apart we would.”
It’s these kinds of tough market-by-market exceptions that make integrations so much more difficult, but Dentsu persevered in bringing nearly all of its creative agencies outside of Japan under the Dentsumcgarrybowen umbrella earlier this year.
APAC business focus: CXM, China, Australia
That move was made possible as Dentsu focuses less on agency brands and more on its three main lines of business (LoBs): creative, media and CXM (customer experience management)—a reconfigured combination of CRM, data and digital transformation.
For Bhasin, the largest opportunity in APAC rests with CXM and data analytics, where he says Dentsu is relatively underweight in the region despite having a huge brand in Merkle globally. He would like Dentsu to help more clients in the region with cloud-based services and build on the CXM service with Merkle’s backing. In some markets, this might mean a greater presence for Merkle while others it could mean more shared services. Were it not for Covid disrupting and delaying some plans, Bhasin says, this may have already been accomplished sooner.
Dentsu in Asia-Pacific has also had to focus much attention recently on turning around the chronic underperformance in China and Australia in the past couple of years. Shortly after taking over as DAN's APAC chief last September, Bhasin felt compelled to make some management changes, replacing ANZ CEO Henry Tajer with Angela Tangas and bringing in former OMG APAC chief Cheuk Chiang to head up the Greater North business.
Bhasin says he’s seen immediate changes in these markets, despite the added complications brought by Covid. Australia now has a more simplified and efficient structure along with a new ecommerce offering for clients. China, he points out, has 12 key new business wins this year, up 40% over last year.
“Early signs are very good in both markets. But I'm acutely aware that we have a long way to go not just in those markets, but in very various others,” Bhasin says. “It almost felt like every day there was some bad news that was happening last year. I think that has clearly stabilised. And on the ground these wins are giving us a lot of confidence. But the work is not complete. It's a step in the journey. And we are acutely aware that we have a journey ahead for us.”
While the work is not yet over, Bhasin says most of the major leadership and structural changes have been made and he’s keen to trust his best managers with the task of running more efficient businesses.
Adds Bhasin, “Our ambitions are very high for APAC. And like they say in mutual funds, future performance is not necessarily dependent upon past performance.”