As part of Couldrey's appointment, Graham Hitchmough has expanded his role as CEO of Southeast Asia for Brand Union to include South Asia, while Monica Lee, CEO of China, will now add North Asia to her remit. Couldrey reports directly to Paul Heath, chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Asia-Pacific.
In this interview, Couldrey explains how he plans to juggle two full-time roles, his ambitions for the talent pool at Ogilvy and why he's the man for the job.
Campaign: Will you be stepping into the role that Ken Hoskin (currently head of talent at AirBnB APAC) left vacant when he left Ogilvy for McCann in 2012? Why the decision to revive the role now?
Alan Couldrey: My role won't be quite the same as Ken's was. When he left for McCann there was a team in place and Sue Olivier, regional talent development director, stepped forward and kept things going. She's part of a three-person leadership team that are each specialised on the components of talent. With her are Haresh Chainani, regional talent acquisition director and Tracy Lao, regional HR and talent director. My responsibility now is to work with these three people as a team, and of course, the teams in each market.
So, why didn't Ogilvy decide to appoint Sue Olivier to the role of CTO?
Sue specialises in training and she just couldn't take on both roles as she needs to be focused on training. The plan for me to take this role has been a longish time coming. I'm still responsible for Brand Union so it wasn’t as if I could just take up the job immediately. I have however been working with the talent team for about six months already.
About those two roles, how does that work?
Theoretically it’s divided into two jobs, 50-50. But really, the talent job is the more demanding half now because the team I’ve got with Brand Union (headed by Graham Hitchmough and Monica Lee) know exactly what they’re doing and have expanded their roles to include more markets.
On the talent side, I will mainly manage the team and act as an interface for all three with the Ogilvy management team. Mainly it's to make sure the key questions in HR get answers: Who have we got? Where are they going? How do we make sure everyone gets paid? Are they being trained and developed to fit the way the company needs to grow?
So, in the nicest possible way, why you?
Why me? I suppose it's tied to my very broad experience with leading Ogilvy in Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. I started work with Ogilvy HK in the '80s in the creative department as a copywriter and I later helped set up the media and PR unit. And then of course, there's running Brand Union. Over time you find that a lot of the role of managing a company is down to people management and I find that the thing I enjoy most is working with teams and people and making it fun along the way.
Fun is good. But what about the perception that agencies drive talent too hard?
Work-life balance has to have priority and health is paramount. The way agencies are structured does present the potential that people will be working to the point of health damage, and we don’t want that.
Also, I don’t find when talking to our fresher employees that there’s any lack of expectation that they will put in long hours and work hard. What they don’t want is monotonous, repetitive and unimaginative work. There used to be a time in agency-life that you wouldn't meet a client for at least a year after you joined, so they could apprentice you and train you up. That doesn’t exist anymore. Take very bright people from university to meet clients early on. Old fashioned patterns of work are fading away.
A significant part of my role, I believe, is to help people see how their contributions are making a difference. To convey that they are more than an ant in an anthill or a cog in the machine but that they are engaged in a role that is bigger than their designations.
What are the pain points or targets that you will be focusing on in the short to medium to long term?
In the short term, my focus is to get fully involved in the talent structure. Overall, it's a working machine. But there are some administrative and structural things we could improve on in terms of efficiency. It's important and we should perhaps start there.
Training is of course a priority for 2015. We find that we need specialists but we also need people who understand the full range of what we offer. People who can understand and interpret the type of skills you can't pick up over the weekend by reading the right book.
Finally, we need to ask, who are we hiring? Are we hiring people who understand this new world and feel comfortable in it? We need people who can cope with ambiguity and uncertainty without being tripped up.
The work we're going into... it’s not always going to be a data or social or communications project. It’s a bit of everything. All connected up. We need really flexible thinkers. The early Ogilvy training for people, they used to say, and I apologise for this to all the ladies in the industry, “we need gentlemen with brains”. People with brains. Gentlemen—people who had values they carried with them. Fundamentally, we need people with an ability to think on their feet and respond to the environment.
Everybody’s looking at churn rate. We do an annual review of employee satisfaction. Those scores are largely moving in the right direction. It also helps us see if there is a particular problem in an office which can be addressed. But where it's getting hard is that people have higher expectations for their jobs. Millennial employees expect their jobs to be rewarding and challenging from the beginning. It keeps us working hard to match expectations.
Also, and this isn't news. Everyone doing business in China finds it hard to recruit people. We compete with a wider and wider range of industries. This is very true in China and all markets growing quickly.
Do you have any personal ambitions for this role?
There is...an elusive quality about working in advertising which captures that idea that I’m part of something I can help shape that something and it’s all worthwhile. For example, when you're part of a team and you pitch for a client - win or lose, you have the sense that you did everything you could, that you pulled together and that's a natural high that can't be matched in more mundane industries. That sense of belonging to something is an element I'd like to better understand and somehow make use of.