Robert Sawatzky
Jul 23, 2019

Jon Cook: ‘I was scared we would mess up an iconic Y&R or VML’

Nearly a year after the merger, VMLY&R’s chief executive reflects on progress so far, on comparing notes with Wunderman Thompson and on applying lessons from China.

Jon Cook is in a good mood these days, seen here having some laughs with staff in Shanghai
Jon Cook is in a good mood these days, seen here having some laughs with staff in Shanghai

Entering VMLY&R’s new Shanghai office last week, Jon Cook was immediately overwhelmed—greeted by facial recognition technology and promptly wrapped in agency branding across digital billboards as he entered the space.

“I was blown away," Cook tells Campaign Asia-Pacific. "As someone who's been at VML for 23 years and now steeped in the VMLY&R brand, this Shanghai office is probably the best in the world in our network of demonstrating look and feel of our new brand.”

Cook was in Shanghai to have a closer look at the agency’s newest center of excellence (CoE), a “trilogy” of media, content and commerce fused together that is expected to inspire future work across the network.

VMLY&R's new swagger

In photos, Cook can be seen smiling and laughing with staff in Shanghai—in one, he poses with APAC co-chief executives Yi-Chung Tay and Tripti Lochan along with global CMO Beth Wade in front of a large neon sign reading ‘Swagger’.

L to R: APAC co-CEO Yi-Chung Tay; global CEO Jon Cook; APAC co-CEO Tripti Lochan; global CMO Beth Wade

It’s true that the new agency is catching some confidence after being singled out by Mark Read in WPP’s 2018 preliminary results in March for its “strong start” in earning $25 million in the first 90 days, a figure which Cook points out has since doubled to $50 million.

More accolades certainly came after last month’s Cannes Lions festival, which in Cook’s words “couldn’t have worked any better for us.” VMLY&R picked up the Social & Influencer Grand Prix for its inventive freezer-fighting ‘Keeping Fortnite Fresh’ campaign for Wendy’s and a Glass Grand Prix and Titanium Lion for ‘The Last Ever Issue’, a bold campaign to buy and shut down a Polish erotic men’s magazine after a final issue published around women’s empowerment.

Cook says it was critical for an agency known for its technology and customer-experience capabilities to show the world how creative and innovative it can be. In fact, VML’s huge growth spurt over the past five years, he says, came when it started to embrace creativity—which eventually became the whole proposition behind merging with Y&R.

Reflections on a merger

And here, perhaps, more than any other reason, is why Cook finds himself able to exhale. The merger has not been a disaster. There is still work to be done internally and difficult personnel decisions did not always work out well, but the agency has not been plagued by cascading headlines around mass confusion, dissatisfied clients or lost business.

“Coming up on a year I’m very reflective right now,” Cook tells Campaign. “In the deep dark back of my mind I had some mild fear that doing this we would mess up an iconic Y&R or VML that I was so proud of.

“Going into this our team didn’t read a bunch of textbooks about how to merge companies, we just did it as naturally as we could. As I look back, it’s hard enough to be an agency these days. It’s even harder to merge an agency. If we hadn’t been really clear, specific and confident about leadership it would only have been harder.”

Cook argues one of the things the agency did best during the merger was make really clear, hard decisions about leadership, including himself—not watering down two agencies or doubling the size of the leadership team. In many but not all cases, that meant putting VML leaders in charge and more senior exits from Y&R. Acknowledging the hard conversations, Cook maintains they were done fairly, creating a leadership team “around people that really had the energy for going forward and had trust and connections with one another.”

Not all leadership decisions were bang on. In London, the Y&R leadership found themselves immediately on the outs and VML Europe chief Jon Sharpe was put in charge, only to suspend him and have him resign 10 weeks later facing a disciplinary process. “I think we got 90% to 95% right,” Cook says of the global leadership decisions. “London was a market where we realised that sometimes the leader doesn’t come from Y&R or VML.”

The other thing Cook will admit is that by focusing on leadership, clients and business development, all the internal systems, including synchronising HR plans and merging processes, came secondary and are still only now being worked on. “But I can tell you, if you have to choose, I’d rather be doing that second,” Cook says. “I think a lot of people do it the opposite.”

The new WPP

If the task of merging two agencies is new to Cook, he at least has colleagues within WPP at who are working through similar issues. And he does meet from time to time with Wunderman Thompson CEO Mel Edwards to compare notes. “We get together for the occasional beer. It’s like a shared therapy consultation session,” he jokes.

“This will sound like I’m pumping [us up], but I think it’s a good example of new WPP. We’ve had so many years of it being not only acceptable but almost encouraged to compete with one another. I think we’re finding ourselves in a new WPP where people like Mel and I, our first instinct is to talk together about things we can learn from each other, partner together and help each other. Those are behaviours that are definitely new and something I’ve really valued. There’s a new vibe.”

Along with the new cultural vibe at WPP comes a tension and business pressure around making the newly merged agencies work, but Cook says he hasn’t felt this much energy and excitement in his 24 years with the agency. “I’m so happy to say that not only did we not mess up a good thing we had going, but we made both better and I feel great about where we are.”

Lessons from China

And where Cook is, at the moment, is in Shanghai, trying to apply what’s happening in the fastest-moving ecommerce market to global operations.

Cook addressing the VMLY&R office in Shanghai

His biggest takeaway from China? That the distinct boundaries between media channels, content and commerce experiences, still evident in many markets around the world will only keep melting away.

“In China I love how grey the line is between those experiences," he says. "I think that’s the way of the future, where in China it’s so much more accelerated. When I’m in an entertainment or content experience, the purchase experience is right there, so seamless that I don’t even know that I’ve left it. Here it’s so natural. I think it’s a huge opportunity for brands and agencies and it’s something that’s absolutely going to teach the rest of the world.”

Building off that, VMLY&R’s Shanghai CoE aims to do the exact opposite of what most centers of excellence will aim to do by creating distinct specialisms. Here, the goal is to put specialists in media, content and commerce together to create new specialists in integrated work around “connected commerce”.

“What we’re doing here that is so unique—and the growth here is starting to prove that—is the ability to put all those things together,” Cook says, citing work for key clients in China like Dell, Mary Kay, JD and for PepsiCo, like the 'Your Pepsi Home Video' campaign below, partnering with Alibaba on data.

“They don’t have to be so prescriptive as saying ‘we want you to buy media’ or ‘we want you to create content’. What they just need to say is ‘we want to drive sales for this particular product’. What the CoE team here is doing is taking that spend and finding the best possible way to invest it for that product to sell, and the creativity comes in how the team is thinking about that. That’s the nice thing.”

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