In 2008, when Mark Heap left Mindshare China to head PHD China, the agency was “virtually nothing” in the region, he recalls. But when MediaCom global chief executive Steve Allen and GroupM Asia-Pacific CEO Mark Patterson asked him recently to consider the role of CEO of MediaCom Asia-Pacific, Heap learnt something new. It seems that in terms of scale, Media-Com is capable of going toe-to-toe with Mindshare.
“What excites me is that there is a lot of latent potential in the agency, the depth of the resources and talent we have here blew me away. It’s rather like a sleeping tiger in the region,” says Heap.
Over the years, it seems the agency has been stealthily building up its capabilities in fields such as business science, marketing analytics, insights, sports marketing and direct response marketing. “Back when I was previously with GroupM, many of these functions didn’t really exist.”
This is due in large part, believes Heap, to the interest the WPP group has taken in Asia. “I’ve spent my last 16 years in Asia-Pacific and while all agency groups have big ambitions for Asia, I don’t think many of them have taken the time required to understand the nuances of business here. WPP, on the other hand, the knowledge that Steven [Allen] and Martin [Sorrell, CEO of WPP] have of the markets here is phenomenal.”
While Heap, who started his new role at the end of September, has no plans to stroll into MediaCom “like Napoleon” and start changing things, he does regard raising the agency’s profile as his first major challenge.
“It has struck me from the start that the agency’s profile is too low. You don’t often see MediaCom in the trade press or award shows ,” says Heap.
Despite the agency’s strong performance over the past year, with US$522 million in new business thanks to new client such as Fonterra, BAT and Sony, the perception is that MediaCom still has trouble standing out in the GroupM family.
Patterson declined to comment on MediaCom’s role in the group. “I never comment on a specific agency, they are all equally important.”
Based on RECMA’s June 2013 rankings, GroupM’s top agency in terms of billings is Mindshare (which also leads the region), followed by MediaCom in third place, MEC in seventh and Maxus in ninth.
Heap too acknowledged that he wasn’t able to comment on the agency’s stature in the group. That said, MediaCom is relatively young and had the chance to structure its growth around the needs of clients today and tomorrow, he commented.
At PHD China however, brand presence was everything. “It was very important for PHD to be more than just a conflict agency, but you couldn’t walk into a pitch and talk the same language as ZenithOptimedia or Mindshare,” he explains. “That language depends on scale, and if you haven’t got that, you’ve got to be different and build a bolder brand profile.”
This approach helped Heap turn PHD China from an agency of just 10 that was deeply in debt in 2008 to an award-winning 200-person strong outfit by the end of 2012. Considering this achievement, there was little surprise when Heap made the leap to a regional post with another network after the top post at PHD Asia-Pacific went to Susana Tsui.
Beyond this, GroupM’s Patterson also saw in Heap the type of leader who will roll up his sleeves, listen, support, advise and counsel. “He is a great listener and collaborator. He is also able to dissect a problem and, in plain language, offer solutions and options to move forward.”
Listening is just what Heap plans to do during his first few months. “Just coming in from a local-market CEO role, I have felt the pain from their point of view when it comes to regional decisions affecting local markets. So I am determined to spend time with these leaders because investments we make will only work if the local markets are on board,” says Heap.
It is all too easy for agencies to invest in projects that turn out to be white elephants, he adds. “It looks great on paper, but if there’s no real client demand for it on the ground, it can create resentment as local markets are very aware that it is their revenues that are paying for it,” says Heap. “So I’ll be getting their ideas on how best to invest in MediaCom.”
While he is not at liberty to discuss his ideas yet, Heap dropped a few hints. “I will say that we’re in an industry that’s getting more commoditised. The rise of procurement officers has placed incredible pressure on clients.”
MediaCom, he continues, has so far built a “great foundation in understanding data and how to measure things and make advertising more accountable”. While to a degree all agencies claim to do this, Heap believes MediaCom has one of the biggest teams in the region dedicated to econometrics and marketing effectiveness. “MediaCom clients P&G and Coke really believe in this discipline which helped us build a strong team of about 50 in Asia.”
As a result of this investment, few agencies can touch MediaCom in it’s core discipline, adds Heap: “Really solid media planning.”