Jessica Goodfellow
Dec 17, 2020

Vice's Virtue agency pursues more 'culturally rich' work by combining APAC and MEA regions

EXCLUSIVE: Virtue has reorganised its business into 'mega regions'—combining APAC with MEA and North America with LATAM—a move it believes will lead to more "culturally rich" work for brands.

Aaron Pearce (left) becomes MD of AMEA, and Sunny Hermano becomes head of business development AMEA
Aaron Pearce (left) becomes MD of AMEA, and Sunny Hermano becomes head of business development AMEA

Virtue, the creative agency that sits under media company Vice, is combining its Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa regions under one leadership team, believing the two distinct regions have many similarities from cultural and business perspectives.

With this integration the agency’s Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Singapore, Tokyo, Shanghai, Seoul, Busan, Jakarta, Bangalore and Mumbai teams will fall under one AMEA leadership team comprised of current and new staff from across the two regions. 

The merging of the two distinct regions follows the agency's decision to bring together North America and Latin America under one leadership team. Virtue's global president Rob Newlan believes that bringing teams together under an expanded region will lead to more "culturally rich" work for brands.

"I truly believe in the power of perspective when it comes to crafting powerful, creative ideas," he told Campaign Asia-Pacific. "Working as expanded regions gives people with wildly different backgrounds the opportunity to work together, responding to a client brief in new and fresh ways that just aren’t possible coming from one office.

"One of the many benefits of working with a diverse and dispersed group of creatives is that you don’t go with the obvious and easy answers. The power derived from a range of voices is that they push through to the more interesting and culturally rich ideas that brands need to find new ways to really matter to the world."

Aaron Pearce, who has established Virtue's presence in APAC over the past two years, now leads the combined AMEA region as MD. Pearce said Virtue's decision to merge APAC and MEA is both culture and business-related.

"We see the East as the emerging part of the world, and we felt there was a much closer alignment between the Middle East and in Asia than there was between the Middle East and Europe," he said. "That has been validated by work we have seen from teams working together across UAE, India and Indonesia, for example. There are similarities from a cultural perspective, whether it links to religion or where people grow up or even the combination of expat and locals.

"The second element is to do with the evolution of our business in these markets. We're a lot more evolved in Europe and the US than we are in the Middle East and in Asia. So as we're building up, it makes sense to put these emerging markets together."

By no means is this a cost-saving exercise, Pearce asserted: "We did not do it to consolidate and move headcount out of the business—that did not happen as part of this." On the contrary, no roles have been lost as part of the internal restructure, with existing regional leadership elevated to AMEA roles. Virtue has also hired several roles predominantly in the APAC region, and intends to continue to hire across its major offices and "potentially in places like Thailand", Pearce said.

The AMEA leadership team consists of the following: Ciaran Bonass has become executive creative director of the region from his former role as ECD of MEA. Jakarta-based Basti Chendra has been elevated to group creative director, and will work alongside Shanghai-based Kolo Lee and Seoul-based Alex Koo, both creative directors. New joiners in the creative team include India-based associate creative directors Pranav Bhardwaj and Kobita Banerjee.

Other hires include Sunny Hermano, who joined the agency earlier this year as head of business development from his former role leading partnerships at Universal Music Group in Singapore. Also in Singapore, Huiwen Tow has joined the agency as co-head of strategy, Sari Trisulo has joined as VP of production and Caan Gianzon has been hired as business director, alongside Tokyo-based Fiona Knight. From the MEA region, UAE-based Alvaro Bretel becomes the other co-head of strategy.

While Pearce expects revenue from AMEA to be evenly split between Asia and the Middle East in 2021, "that will probably shift more towards Asia going forward". The opportunity for growth in Asia due to its sheer size is "much more significant" than that in the Middle East, he said.

Virtue operates a "borderless" model globally, described by Newlan as "one P&L, one team, spread across 21 countries, headquartered out of nowhere". Video calls bringing in teams from several different markets for a pitch or project is already the norm for Virtue, so from an operational perspective transitioning from two regions to one has been "quite smooth", according to Pearce.

"We have people working on projects split across six-plus countries," Pearce said. "We've got projects where someone may be based in Dubai, in Jakarta, in Bangalore and Busan. There would not be many phone calls where we wouldn't have at least four countries represented."

Such cross-sharing of culture is what Virtue sees as its major advantage over other agencies.

"Being able to pull in people from Korea to work on things in Southeast Asia, for example, where we know how influential K dramas and music is, it's really been an advantage now that we've got the operations and the logistics under control," Pearce said. This capability is especially powerful given the influence the East is starting to have on the West when it comes to music or general entertaiment, he added.

The 'borderless' approach also means Virtue can pull together a client team "that's relevant to the opportunity", according to head of business development Sunny Hermano, rather than being limited by the expertise of one country.

Hermano joined Virtue from a traditional agency background with stints at Havas Creative, Wunderman Agenda, Riverorchid, Lowe and J. Walter Thompson. He described Virtue as a "slightly different animal altogether".

"Virtue has this strong lens and culture that I felt was missing in my past experiences," Hermano said. "At the companies I used to work with, we always talked about how we can really connect with consumers. Sure, they have all the data that proves that. But for me, being someone who is really hands-on when it comes to a client's business, I really need to believe in what I'm doing. That's why I joined Virtue. I felt that there was something really special here. And I felt that with my experience and background with traditional business development, together with an agency with a true pulse, culture and understanding—that marriage is really what's going to make the big difference."

Virtue describes its creative approach as "entertainment-centric with a cultural lens". 

"We're not the agency you come to to create a TVC that says 'this toothpaste makes your teeth three shades whiter'. We are more the agency that you come to to get close to culture or be more entertaining," explained Pearce.

Being born from Vice provides Virtue with a direct line into understanding what young people really care about and how to align brands with culture in an authentic way, according to Hermano.

"I'm talking to clients with retainer agencies that are looking for something different, not just different in doing a ‘Vice thing’, but something that connects brands in a much more authentic way, creating work that you want to watch and share," he explained.

Virtue's clients in the AMEA region have so far included major FMCGs (Heinz, Reckit Benckiser, Unilever), beauty (Estee Lauder, L'Oreal, Shiseido), alcohol (Budweiser, Diageo), travel and tourism (Dubai Tourism, Etihad Airway), ecommerce (Ebay) and apparel (Nike). The majority of its work is project-based rather than retained.

Major clients like these are necessary for growth, but Virtue's passion lies with smaller clients where it can make a real difference.

"Startups with Series B funding, fintech, healthtech, sustainable energy—those are the categories that excite us, the ones that Virtue can really add value to," Hermano explained.

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