Staff Reporters
Apr 14, 2020

The 4 most-improved agencies in Asia-Pacific

AGENCY REPORT CARDS: Here's why these agencies' grades rose the most overall across five different categories.

The 4 most-improved agencies in Asia-Pacific

In years past, we've let our Agency Report Card (ARC) grades and analysis talk for themselves. But with so much information going into our annual evaluation, we wanted to highlight a number of standouts, starting with the agencies that made the greatest leaps. These were calculated by how many net letter grades each agency advanced over five key categories: management, creativity, innovation, business growth and people and diversity. 

Of the patterns that have emerged among the most-improved agencies of 2019, perhaps the most obvious is that three out of four are smaller agencies that haven't typically made as many industry headlines as the larger players. The same proportion are also coming off a low base, having been graded somewhere in the C-range last year. At least two, if not three, are known for their digital savviness, while three of them would clearly be characterised as 'creative' agencies. 

So without further ado, here are the four most-improved agencies in Asia-Pacific: 

AKQA (+8)

NZ Coast Guard

AKQA is one of WPP's smaller agencies, but it proved to be one of its best performing units in 2019 and was our most-improved agency overall, climbing +8 grades in total over the five categories. Half of its gains came from a much-needed upgrade to a downright terrible score for People and Diversity in 2018. AKQA's current APAC leadership team now has an exact 50/50 gender split and bi-annual salary audits are enforced, among other improvements.  

Putting the proficient Sam Sterling in charge of Greater China and Japan last August appears to have been a solid move so far, as she plans to bring both the Japan and China markets closer together to lean into their strengths and similarities despite stark differences in those markets. One such tool that might be used is MVP Studio, a ‘rapid-sprint prototyping methodology’ that Sterling introduced in China whereby the agency takes three weeks to tackle a business challenge and prototype a solution for it. 

Speaking of accelerating business growth, this was another key factor in its upgrade, with notable wins such as BMW, Ford, Bridgestone, CCA (Coca Cola), and Courtyard by Marriott. Senior leaders attribute AKQA's new business success to less reliance on the traditional pitch process and stronger project work, forcing the team to works extra hard to prove their value.

But we also really liked some of AKQA's purpose-driven work that utilises tech, like its collaboration with the New Zealand Coastguard (image above) that used AI and data visualisation to assist the marine rescue operation centre. Another example was its Code of Conscience, a project whose tech was developed by the R&D team in Melbourne to tackle illegal deforestation in the Amazon. 

Iris (+5)

Hendrick's Gin

Iris is—if you will—the Vice Media of the advertising world. An outsider agency always looking to start a fight, while at the end of the day, still bringing in the numbers. We admire its scrappiness, even if borne out of necessity, like losing its key Shell account, leading it to pivot towards niche 'insurgent' brands like Sustenir and Rapid Rugby and wins from Netflix, Facebook, and Salesforce, alongside its stable of lifestyle and alcohol brands (like Hendrick's Gin, pictured above).

But most of Iris' higher grades in 2019 came down to its leadership and culture. Luke Nathans as regional CEO and Sorcha John as managing director of the Asia hub in Singapore (John has since been named global director of Iris Future Strategy) have set the tone, augmented by Rica Facundo as newly hired head of culture and ECD Ed Cheong. These leaders attribute Iris' high pitch win rate (80%) to an infectious chemistry and energy, and clients get a sense that the team members are invested in and love what they do.

Iris truly shines in its people and diversity initiatives. For International Women’s Day last year, it launched The Conscious Calendar to highlight that petty duties in the office often fall on women by default. More importantly, as a fierce advocate of pay parity, John put in place policies to ensure no gender is at a disadvantage because of a lack of negotiation power. 

Essence (+5)

Essence’s partnership with Indian talk show ‘Koffee with Karan’ for Google Home

The largest portion of Essence's report card gains (+3) in 2019 came from leadership, which may be counterintuitive considering the media agency lost its star Asia-Pacific CEO and hasn't yet replaced her. But the August promotion of Kyoko Matsushita from Asia-Pacific to global CEO was testament to the strength of talent coming from APAC, one of the fastest-growing markets for Essence’s hero client Google. 

One thing Essence and Matsushita did well was to truly empower its VPs and MDs, building confidence in a now stable regional leadership team that includes president, growth and strategy T. Gangadhar; chief operating officer Kingshuk Mitra; SVP product Kunal Guha; and Australia (James Graver), China (Benjamin Wei), India (Anand Chakravarthy), Korea (Jay Lee) MDs. The agency again invested heavily in people, as headcount increased by more than 38% year-on-year, in key areas such as operations (which grew by 44%), experience (user experience, user interface design, copywriting, art direction etc), and in its Delhi-based ‘global hubs’.

Its investment in its ‘experience’ team helped to plug one of the few gaps in Essence’s offering: creativity. Adding skill sets that traverse media and creative—such as user experience and interface design—brought higher quality to its digital advertising campaigns for Google that scooped nearly all of its many awards in 2019, totaling more than other regions in the global network combined.

Beyond headcount alone, the agency continued to evolve its already extensive diversity initiatives. New to 2019 was a development programme for leaders, Ascend, geared at raising awareness of microaggressions and unconscious biases. Leaders are now measured against diversity and inclusion performance objectives. More than half (57%) of APAC promotions in 2019 were secured by females, while two-thirds (65%) of employees promoted to managerial levels were female. Moreover, three-quarters (75%) of promotions above director-level went to women—where the biggest gender gap exists. 

Grey Group (+5)


Grey really had nowhere to move but up. The heritage agency set out to play a bigger role within the WPP network in 2019 and claims to have achieved this by leading several ‘team WPP’ cross-agency pitches for the likes of Mazda, Distell, Changi, Mac and Arla Foods. This helped to edge up its Business Growth score, with wins coming from a nice spread of markets across APAC.

Yet Grey really must give a special shout out to Bangladesh for providing a much needed boost to its Creativity and Innovation grades, which made the greatest difference overall. The too-often ignored South Asian market won one of the agency’s bigger pitches in Japan Tobacco International (JTI)—a win it credits to its new ‘borderless’ way of working, which will be rolled out fully in 2020 with an internal platform launch. The agency had a strong year creatively, producing some its most successful creative work in recent memory in UCB’s AgroBanking campaign, a scheme to provide ‘unbanked’ Bangladeshi farmers with access to the financial system, that pulled in the biggest awards haul—including three Lions and nine Spikes. 

While Grey has had a hit and miss record on purpose-based marketing historically, in 2019 it scored a lot more hits. Volvo’s Living Seawall, first revealed in 2018, used 3D printing technology to create wall tiles that mimic mangrove trees to hopefully, over a period of time, attract marine life back to Sydney harbour. A rare ‘purpose’ campaign with longevity, the work was widely celebrated during 2019's awards season, winning two Lions and a gold Spike. There was also Grey India’s campaign for Gillette, 'The Barbershop Girls of India' (pictured above), which confronted gender stereotypes by highlighting the true story of two young girls who run their father’s barbershop. The ad garnered more than 16.5 million views on YouTube alone, and scored three Spikes and one Lion. 

Grey formally set up a a ‘creative council’ process in 2019, in which work was reviewed by local creative directors, and then was fed into its bi-annual regional creative conference, and up to the global team. Whether that made the difference or not, in the end, Grey APAC was WPP’s best performing regional network at Cannes in 2019.

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