Wavemaker’s global CEO feels his agency’s Asia business has not been given due credit for what it has achieved over the past year and a half.
Despite Campaign documenting the company's series of structural and cultural changes and awarding higher grades for management, innovation and diversity in our most recent Agency Report Cards, Toby Jenner remains unmoved by our grading, which he maintains undersells the agency compared to its competitors.
It’s clear the global chief, who spent multiyear stints in Asia as Mediacom’s APAC COO and Australasia executive chairman, has high hopes for Asia-Pacific—and wants the world to know it.
“For us, Asia, in a way, is our strongest region," Jenner says. "Strongest in terms of talent and increasingly, as much from a business performance perspective. I really see the region as a huge growth opportunity for us.”
Whilst Asia-Pacific currently only makes up a quarter of Wavemaker’s global business, Jenner would like to see that share grow to about a third, split more or less evenly with Europe and the Americas. When speaking with Campaign earlier this summer, Jenner pointed to Wavemaker’s 15% growth rate in China year-on-year, noting the size and scale of Asia’s most populous markets like India that have been hit by the pandemic but still hold the potential to outpace average growth rates elsewhere.
Regional support for bigger clients
Yet in order for Wavemaker’s Asian operations to compete with Europe, it will need to raise its share of work for global brands. One knock against Wavemaker in APAC has been its heavier weighting toward local clients.
“We could have more global clients," Jenner admits. "Absolutely. That's an ambition that we foster moving forward. But we have a good share of multi-market and global clients across Asia-Pacific as much as anywhere.” He points to clients like Colgate, Mondelez, Viacom and Paramount Studios while citing global “best-in-class” work like L’Oreal’s 12-hour virtual beauty festival in Malaysia, which brought in a month’s worth of sales in 24 hours and will now be replicated in other markets, such as Canada.
Wavemaker’s desire to bring in more multi-market clients and support global work is one reason why it reappointed an APAC president (in China CEO Gordon Domlija) two years ago after initially eliminating its regional offices when Wavemaker was formed in 2017. It’s also why the agency brought in Jose Campon to lead China earlier this year, allowing Domlija to focus more on his regional remit.
Although there are fewer regional pitches these days, Jenner says the size and scale of the company's APAC business alone, with 14 different markets, requires coordination to best serve clients.
“Just from a management perspective of understanding what we're doing, where we’re doing it for which clients, I think you need to have a regional structure. I've seen many businesses try not to, but revert back to having one,” Jenner says.
Mindful of additional costs, Jenner insists anything done at regional level naturally has to add value for local teams and existing clients, grow their businesses, and ensure capabilities are strong. “Having that regional layer ensures that we can share from centres of excellence and reapply, because otherwise you're just a collection of local markets,” Jenner says. “So we've got a strong regional team, but not, I would say, a dense one.”
Exporting Asian know-how
One place from which Jenner is very keen on sharing specialisation globally is China, where Domlija has intimate market knowledge along with Campon, who was imported from iProspect to bolster its “turbocharged” performance and ecommerce business during Covid. Jenner isn’t bothered by the fact that China’s digital ecosystem is completely different, either.
“I think everyone will do what is happening in China down the track," he says. "China’s just further ahead. Many agencies have China somehow ringfenced on ecommerce, there's no conduit out to the rest of the world because they’re on different platforms. But those different platforms shouldn't preclude the learning that they bring from a social-commerce perspective. So we've got global and local capabilities there to share those learnings around the world.”
While most agencies have the ability to share global best practices and most will celebrate examples of collaboration, it’s less likely to happen regularly without incentives or structural change. So earlier this year Wavemaker implemented a means to stitch together its global specialists more effectively.
In ecommerce, for example, Wavemaker went beyond having a global head and has created dual roles in-market, where 50% of an employee’s time is spent working on a global basis and 50% locally. In China it allows them to dive into local practices and then share ecommerce and social-commerce capabilities globally. Not every ecommerce practice in China can be reapplied, given the differences in local platforms, Jenner admits. “But certainly making sure the commerce team globally understands what is happening, where it's happening, why it's happening, is absolutely central to the success we're having.”
Bringing in cultural change
Just as critical, Jenner says, is that in reverse APAC also benefits from the agency’s new global positioning, which it launched last year around ‘positive provocation’. Jenner insists it has led diversity and inclusion to become interwoven with the business and that Wavemaker is hiring, recognising and rewarding people in line with this cultural attitude.
Since DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) changes cannot be made overnight (“because you've got people in roles and unless they're doing a bad job, it's very hard to move people on”) one of the first things Jenner did last year was to create a reverse-mentoring ‘challenger exco’, including one in Asia-Pacific, that is diverse by design. Meeting whenever the exco meets, it is adapted and run regionally, but challenges the agency leadership exco, holds it to account and acts as a fuel for the business, Jenner says.
By example, Jenner says one brief fed back to the leadership team from these challengers relates to how the culture of the organisation can play a more pivotal role in delivering the business objectives. He says the exco is now creating a means to deliver on that.
Seeing cultural momentum taking shape is what has Jenner most excited about what’s happening in APAC and all regions. “It’s absolutely integral to what we do because you can't be positively provocative if you're the same.”