Matthew Miller
Dec 14, 2021

Digital agency Dept comes to APAC, with Vishnu Mohan as head

EXCLUSIVE: The former Havas Group regional leader joins the Amsterdam-based agency as it initiates a plan to scale up rapidly in the region.

L-R: Vishnu Mohan, Dimi Albers
L-R: Vishnu Mohan, Dimi Albers

Vishnu Mohan will lead an aggressive expansion strategy in APAC for Dept, an Amsterdam-based digital agency that intends to scale up to 1000 people in the region by 2024.

Mohan, who in January stepped down as chairman and CEO of Havas Group Southeast Asia, India and North Asia after 25 years with that organisation, joins Dept as partner and chief growth officer. He will work closely with global CEO Dimi Albers.

“I love the thrill of building something from scratch,” Mohan told Campaign Asia-Pacific, adding that he already has a list of potential acquisitions he’s speaking to—both companies and people.

“When I take a job, I need to be set up for success,” he said. “And I believe that with Dept I had something that I could bring to the table in terms of companies that I would want to acquire to become part of the Dept organisation, or talent that I would want to onboard in order to ramp up the organic growth.”

The acquisition process will take place at an “accelerated pace” across Australia, India and Southeast Asia, while allowing Mohan a bit more time to scope out the right targets in North Asia. “I have a fair bit of understanding of what exists out there, and I'm adding on to that knowledge,” he said.

Founded in 2015, Dept bills itself as part creative digital-execution agency and part digital-transformation agency. Clients include Google, Samsung, Mizuno, KFC, KLM, Twitch, Fujitsu and Spotify, and the agency has more than 2,000 people in 17 countries. Dept is majority-owned by private-equity firm Carlyle. It has absorbed four agencies in the last 12 months, including design and experience agency Basic and creative technology agency Byte.

In addition to scaling to 1000 people, Mohan is being charged with building an APAC organisation that delivers 10% of global revenues by 2024. The company plans to use Singapore as a hub and to have a satellite team in Manila, in addition to whatever companies it acquires.

Dept plays in a fiercely competitive arena that includes global agency networks, consulting firms such as Accenture and Deloitte that have bolted on creative firepower in recent years, S4 Capital and others. Dept’s differentiation, according to Albers, rests on the fact that it speaks to both CMOs and CIOs by combining expertise in creative marketing execution and overall transformation. The agency also prides itself on being a pioneer in the application of tech and in its ownership model.

“We've built the agency in a model where we have over 150 shareholders, which means that each of our clients has a personal relationship with one or more of those shareholders,” Albers said. “That enables us to have a culture which we call ‘Big enough to cope, small enough to care’. We can work for any brand in the world, but it still feels like a 50-person agency.”

Many of the founders who joined Dept through acquisition have moved into roles beyond the organisations they entered with, which Mohan considers a strong sign. “The people fronting the business have a stake in the organisation,” he said, adding that Dept’s scale and the culture of agility allow it to ensure that clients get the best talent irrespective of where they are based.

Mohan also cited Dept’s balance as appealing. “It’s not just about being an overall, holistic digital-transformation organisation,” Mohan said. “For me it was the relative weight, or contributions, that Dept is getting from the technology and the marketing-services aspects. Very few organisations have that perfect balance between the two, but when you look at Dept, they're almost 50:50.” He draws an analogy to make the point: “You can make a beautiful car, but you can only make a very beautiful performance car if you also have the right engineering and experience behind it.”

Albers said that although Dept has already been delivering work into APAC markets on behalf of some of its global clients, having a skilled team on the ground will help it make a bigger impact.

Mohan’s network of contacts, market knowledge and growth mindset make him the right leader, Albers added. “Right from the start, the combination felt really good, because we have that same sort of drive,” he said. “We have the experience of building out markets really fast and in different ways, both organic and inorganic. That gives us a lot of confidence that we will meet these targets over the coming two-ish years.”

Mohan served as chairman of the Vivendi Committee SEA and India after leaving his Havas role. Avyan Holdings, a venture that he set up after his Vivendi responsibilities ended in June, has its own independent leaders who will continue to lead its expansion, Mohan said.

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