Emily Tan
Oct 27, 2015

Why Stephen Li left MEC to join OMD: Exclusive interview

HONG KONG - Five days into his new job as Asia-Pacific CEO of OMD, Stephen Li gave the first interview in his new role to Campaign Asia-Pacific on a visit to Hong Kong last Friday.

Li describes OMG as
Li describes OMG as "very much one big family"

OMD announced Li's appointment in April this year following Steve Blakeman's move to OMD Worldwide London, where he is currently managing director of global accounts. 

After six months of 'gardening leave', of which Li said he spent two months sleeping, two months enjoying his family and two months bored and restless, the former CEO of MEC Asia-Pacific is raring to go. 

What made you decide to leave MEC after a decade and choose OMD as your next step?

Part of the reason I left MEC was ­because I was there for 10 years, the last five of which was spent running the network. It’s time for a new challenge. I got to know the guys at OMD and Cheuk [Chiang, Asia-Pacific CEO of Omnicom Media Group] was very clear about what he felt OMD needed—to take what was already a strong culture and make it fly. And to continue to drive innovation and creativity.

Culturally, I see a lot of similarities between MEC and OMD, which is why OMD was the natural choice for me after I left MEC.

What cultural similarities?

Bearing in mind that I’ve only been there five days, what I’ve seen in OMG—it’s very much one big family. Without sounding hokey.

The reality is, that the OMD and PHD offices sit together. Myself and Susana [Tsui, Asia-Pacific CEO of PHD], we’re already sharing ideas and thoughts. No sense of, ‘Oh, this is an OMD or PHD idea’. There are separate P&Ls, but we care about OMG’s performance as a group. (Editor's note: OMG has written in to ask that M2M be mentioned as the group's third brand)

MEC had a real culture of collaboration, where people just got on with each other, very little politics and bullshit. OMD, very similar environment.

Any differences that attracted you to OMD?

"I have to confess that maybe I joined OMD because I really wanted to be one-third of the only senior management team of an agency in Asia that's all Asian"

MEC and OMD are really two very different agencies. OMD’s client base is different. MEC was always an agency that was built from the local level upwards. It started with local clients and has managed to acquire global relationships with time. OMD was global from the get-go, working with the McDonalds and the J&Js of this world. 

Another difference, MEC was part of a very large group, GroupM, and the third largest network in the group. OMD is the larger of only two agencies in one group. Size-wise, OMD is also larger than MEC.

And finally, I have to confess that maybe I joined OMD because I really wanted to be one-third of the only senior management team of an agency in Asia that’s all Asian. We are all yellow.

What do you think led OMD to choose you?

What appealed to them was my broad, eclectic background. I’ve worked as a creative, with a full-service agency, and as a client. I’m also very grounded in Asia. Even though I have a very English accent, I didn't just fly in. I’ve spent the last 25 years in Hong Kong and Singapore. I was born in Hong Kong. I am of this region.

So what goals have they set for you in your first year leading OMD?

OMD goals—what we agreed on, is for everything I said that was good, the culture, creativity and innovation—at the moment, there's not enough of it necessarily being shared across the network.

There’s not a sense that we’re one OMD across Asia-Pacific. Challenging, probing, pushing each other, cajoling—these are all a key part of my mandate.

Looking at the state of the business, Australia, China, Singapore—they all do well. But I don't want it to be a situation where the markets in Southeast Asia, feel like they’re smaller markets.

I’ve reported from Southeast Asia, and there’s a real sense from agencies in those markets that they’re leaned on to deliver high margins, and are often treated as grunts. Do you plan to change this?

This grunt/high margin question…it’s all part of the same problem. How much do you value all your markets?

At MEC, there was no such thing as a minor market. It may mean more time on the road, more time away from my family. More hours spent on the phone, but that's what it takes when you run the whole region.

What OMD needs for us to have, in Asia-Pacific, is a greater focus on local new businesses. It's wonderful to have a multinational client base, but you can’t rely on it. Clients are capricious, and if you’re sitting in a local market, one day, through no fault of your own, you could just lose a major part of your business. It’s important to have that local business that’s within your control.

Is there a difference in the resources OMG Asia-Pacific has at its disposal, from Omnicom, versus WPP’s investment in GroupM Asia-Pacific? Martin Sorrell's frequently in Asia-Pacific, whereas John Wren is not often in the region. Does that make a difference?

I would be lying if I said that the resources pumped into APAC by WPP versus Omnicom into OMG Asia—if there wasn't a difference.

"From the OMG perspective, what I’ve been told is that we’re very much allowed to get on with things in Asia-Pacific. It’s our region to run and shape." 

It’s public record that he [Martin Sorrell] loves China and Indonesia.

But from the OMG perspective, what I’ve been told is that we’re very much allowed to get on with things in Asia-Pacific. It’s our region to run and shape. Our programmatic offering, Accuen, for example, in the short term I’ve been here we’ve already been in discussions about how we can shape it. What does OMD want? In this group, it’s the agency brand first, front and centre.

So what are the KPIs set for your first year?

So there are three main KPIs, one of which I’ve mentioned. First is to build the OMD agencies into a strong regional community.

Second, OMD has been an agency that has been successful in creativity and awards, such as the Gunn Report and Agency of the Year. One of my main objectives is to continue that success but to ensure that it runs much deeper through the organisation. To be winning awards across every market.

The third KPI is as much a personal agenda item as it is a KPI. Susana won’t mind me raising this, but PHD has really grabbed the spotlight in recent years. That’s great for PHD, and it’s done a great job of that. It’s time though that OMD grabbed the spotlight.

For example, did you know that Paddy Crawshaw, who heads communications planning at OMD out of Singapore, was one of the key people globally developing our global operating system Vision?

It’s people like him that we need to highlight more. If you’re a leader, you’re only as strong as those people around you. And I’m the first to admit, I have more holes than a Swiss cheese—I'm human and I only look good because of the good people I have working around me.


Campaign Asia

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