Gunjan Prasad
Apr 29, 2019

Gotong royong: Maya Watono's clarion call for DAN Indonesia

With a local-language catchphrase evoking mutual cooperation and common cause, the recently appointed Indonesia CEO is bringing local sensibility to bear as she takes over following a challenging year.

Maya Watono
Maya Watono

One of the first things Maya Watono did upon starting her role as the CEO of Dentsu Aegis Network (DAN) for Indonesia was to provide free lunch to all 900 employees in the Jakarta office. Served in a common lounge on every floor, it brought people out from their units, desks and cubicles to share a meal and perhaps “an idea”.

“It may be a Japanese company with British blood mixed in, but I am an Indonesian and will lead in the only way I know,” Watono says. Her sentences are often peppered with the phrase “gotong royong”: “This is the year of gotong royong for Dentsu” or  “Keep the spirit of gotong royong going and we will be fine” and “Clients like to see gotong royong in their agency”.

The phrase loosely translates to ‘mutual cooperation for a common purpose’, and for Watono her first year in office is going to be about just that.

“Collaboration and collectiveness are values deeply ingrained in Indonesia, and that is the only way I can see an agency as big and varied as Dentsu achieve its full potential,” she says.

It may be a Japanese company with British blood mixed in, but I am an Indonesian and will lead in the only way I know.

Whatever she is doing seems to be working. Under her aegis, in Q1, DAN Indonesia won 34 new pieces of businesses including Lazada, Samsung’s M-series’ creative and activation, T-Cash, Yamaha digital and Japan Tobacco International. “In this year, so far, our conversion rate is 77%, compared to 58% in 2018,” she proudly says. “Latest Recma figures put Dentsu X as the leading media agency in Indonesia.”

Positive results, positivity and confidence are just what Watono requires to restore DAN’s verve following an enervating 2018, in which the agency lost some key clients, such as Mondelez and Lenovo, and was hit by an unfortunate event when an Isobar employee passed away following an evening of drinking at a company-organised offsite event.

"It has been challenging to navigate a big ship with 1000 staff, a portfolio of over 20 units and functions, and over 500 brands," Watono says. "The hardest is changing people’s mindsets and managing frictions."

But then Watono is no stranger to making lemonade with the lemons life throws at her. Uprooted from her country of birth when Krismon (financial crisis) made it unsafe for her family to be in Indonesia in 1997, she made a new life with her mother and sister in Australia, only to return back 10 years later to assist her father, Adji Watono, in the running of one of the fastest growing local agencies, Dwi Sapta. “By 2016, Dwi Sapta had become the largest local full-service agency in the country, boasting of almost all Indonesian heavyweights on our roster,” she says.

My first priority was to build a culture whereby all units can work together to provide solutions to client’s needs.

But then when DAN Indonesia came calling, Watono wore her pragmatic hat yet again and decided to merge with the network. “As Dwi Sapta was one of last big local agencies left standing, it wasn’t easy to let go. But in retrospect I know that we made the right decision.”

The legacy of a name cannot ensure survival, she says. "We needed the scale, volume, tools and resources DAN brought with it. And we brought with us our 150 brands and astute knowledge about core Indonesian values and consumer insights.”

Within two years of the merger, Watono became the first woman ever and the youngest CEO to head DAN Indonesia. She didn’t have the luxury of ‘settling in’. “DAN is a great company with great brands, but it needed redefining the service lines," she says. "My first priority was to build a culture whereby all units can work together to provide solutions to client’s needs.”

DAN’s clients are as varied as its portfolio of agencies. Among the top 20 clients, eight are Japanese, seven local and the rest MNCs. “These days client’s needs are complex and often cannot be solved in silo by one agency," Watono says. "It needs a concerted effort and expertise from talents of different business units. DAN Indonesia has almost all of the service lines required for a one-roof service. So my focus has been to foster collaboration under one operating model.”

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