Emily Tan
Sep 16, 2014

How McCann Worldgroup Malaysia retooled after losing core leaders

KUALA LUMPUR – When McCann Worldgroup Malaysia’s three top guys left to form their own agency, Merdeka LHS, in February last year, it caused a major shift in the nature and the profile of the agency.

Constantine: “Advertising people have to be noisy, curious and argumentative or clients will ride roughshod over agencies.”
Constantine: “Advertising people have to be noisy, curious and argumentative or clients will ride roughshod over agencies.”

At the time of his departure, Tony Savrimuthu had been CEO of the agency for a decade and led it along with award-winning joint-ECDs Huang Ean Hwa and Szu Lee. Their departure naturally led to a degree of churn within the agency’s talent pool, as many had joined the company just to work with the trio.

Aware that this was around the corner, McCann brought in an industry veteran, Michael Constantine, as president and CEO of McCann Wordgroup Malaysia and hired Richard Irvine as ECD from Publicis Malaysia.  

“Any new leadership had to have the immediate ability to continue to build on the core strengths of the successful operation passed on by Tony, Hwa and Szu while also looking to reframe under their own vision,” commented Charles Cadell, president of McCann Worldgroup Asia-Pacific.

Cadell added that he has known Constantine for many years, having worked in Leo Burnett before, and approached Constantine based on his deep Asian and agency management experience. “To have him join also allowed us to bring in his old partner Richard Irvine as our ECD from Publicis Malaysia, which meant we had a locally seasoned and tight agency leadership from day one.”

Constantine’s mandate has been to reframe the agency as a more integrated part of the greater network and strengthen its digital capabilities. Since the leadership change, McCann Malaysia has built an entirely new 22-person team for the agency’s production arm, Craft and hired 15 new digital specialists in the last year.

“Our key hires include Marcel Wessling, who was creative head at Arachnid, and Toby Thurston, now director of technology at McCann,” said Constantine. Overall, the headcount has only grown from around 110 people to 125, but its profile has changed "dramatically" he added.

While McCann has a digital shop in MRM, it the creative agency decided it needed integrated digital talent. “When the briefs come in, you don’t want to work on it and then call in the digital specialist," Constantine said. "You want them in the front.”

Constantine is keen for his employees to feel that they are invested in and have a strong chance of being promoted from within and even posted to one of the network’s many offices around the world. “Let’s call this the new McCann," he said. "We want people to have a chance to join, get trained up and be globally mobile. I want us to be a net exporter of talent. I did it at Leo Burnett in the Philippines and employees from there are now working all over the world.”

He hopes incentives like this will give employees a reason to be loyal in a notoriously fickle industry within a high-turnover market. Constantine is disappointed by some of the practices he’s noticed within the industry, which he feels often fails to invest in its talent.

“Why wouldn't you do this?" he asks. "It's a global business. It's a risk we have to take but it's joyful,” he said of having to replace talented individuals who have moved abroad. “We just sent a lady off to McCann Shanghai, she’s now a creative director working on L’Oreal and it’s left a big hole in our team but if your people are desirable they should be rewarded.”

He’s also been trying to encourage ‘feistiness’ in the workplace as he’d noticed a disconcerting reluctance to challenge and question clients. “Advertising people have to be noisy, curious and argumentative, or clients will ride roughshod over agencies.”

So far, his efforts seem to be working. The agency has weathered the transition without major client churn. The only large client it has lost recently is Maxis, when it declined to participate in the creative pitch that took place 18 months after the departure of Savarimuthu, Huang and Lee. The loss of Maxis was partially offset by the win of the Petronas retail and F1 account a year ago.

“Our work for our clients and the more holistic touchpoint planning that we take to them is now quite different to a year ago and is driven by a much broader range of digitally enabled staff,” commented Cadell.


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