David Blecken
Oct 2, 2019

Will a new CEO change McCann's fortunes in Japan?

We spoke with incoming McCann CEO Antony Cundy about his plans to challenge Dentsu-Hakuhodo dominance, and with outgoing leader Charles Cadell about what Japan taught him.

Antony Cundy
Antony Cundy

For nearly 60 years, McCann Worldgroup has been a solid, if unspectacular, presence in Japanese advertising. At its core is the redoubtable healthcare business McCann Health, a long-term market leader that has withstood the addition elsewhere in the network of a major tobacco account in the form of Philip Morris International’s Iqos brand.

Antony Cundy, who took over from Charles Cadell as chief executive yesterday, believes it is possible to transform the network’s other brands, which include MRM, Momentum and UM as well as McCann, into leading businesses in their fields, even as Dentsu and Hakuhodo show little immediate sign of relinquishing their iron grip on the country’s most profitable media channels. Indeed, his ambition for 20 years of working in Japan has been “to create a viable competitor to Dentsu and Hakuhodo”.

It sounds like a pipe dream, and most international agencies essentially give up taking those companies head-on, opting to compete more on their own terms while accepting that their business will remain relatively small.

But the former Beacon Communications strategy director sees more direct competitiveness as achievable by bringing McCann Worldgroup’s various individual units closer together and having them support each other.

“I cannot honestly say that all agencies are leading in their specific areas of expertise,” he says. “That’s to be done with the help of the group.” Efforts to make McCann Worldgroup more “seamless” started under Cadell’s leadership, and it is now up to Cundy to accelerate them.

Better insights, more craziness

He refrains from outlining a particularly personal vision for the company. Rather, he says: “I want to be able to achieve what has made us so successful in markets like the US and UK. It’s to deliver what we want to be globally, which is to be the world’s best creatively-driven marketing company. I know that sounds trite, but in my view it’s the way we’re going to succeed in the market”. It will mean fostering “stronger creative passion and culture”.

In truth, it’s a proposition that could apply to any number of agency groups, and McCann’s distinction will ultimately depend on the quality of its people, even if Cundy does aspire to challenge Dentsu and Hakuhodo by matching “what they’re able to deliver in terms of media”. If that seems unrealistic, his planning background is likely to be advantageous in terms of taking the company to a higher playing field. 

I think having that level of crazy and allowing that and supporting that across the agency is not only going to result in better overall creative output but will also be more appealing to the young people we want to work here.

“We have to go above that with insights that have enough power to change people’s perceptions and behaviour,” he says, adding that brands often complain that strategic thinking is difficult to come by in Japan. He expects creatives as well as planners to “push that agenda”.

In terms of personal approach, Cundy is a believer in “guiding” rather than simply leading, which he says is especially important in Japan and applies at each of the brands under Worldgroup as well as to himself.”

Empowering people is important, and so is “allowing them to be crazy”. To be sure, McCann’s offices, while pleasantly renovated, do not currently exude craziness—but then few large agencies do. The statement can be taken more to mean giving people the freedom they need to be truly creative and original, which in today’s highly pressurised industry is often lacking. “It’s an obligation to fulfil our job, but what we need to be more conscious of is that we joined the industry because every day should be an interesting experience,” he says.

“I think having that level of crazy and allowing that and supporting that across the agency is not only going to result in better overall creative output but will also be more appealing to the young people we want to work here.”

Growth driversor not

The PMI win has been a significant source of revenue growth and has enabled “investment in people with unique skillsets” that might not have been possible otherwise. Other notable wins that have helped McCann in its goal of having different units work together have been Boehringer Ingelheim and Benesse, Cundy says.  

Despite industry optimism in recent years around the Olympics as a driver of new business, he does not see much movement—mostly because of the hold that Dentsu has over rights to the event. Rather than waste energy on trying to navigate this complicated landscape, he is more concerned with the long-term implications of the games for Japan.

“I think the interesting thing for internationals is what happens afterwards,” he says. “Working on that is probably a more exciting opportunity than to find a way to compete with Dentsu in an area which they have quite rightly bought the rights for. Japan has a lot of thinking to do post-Olympics, how it wants to communicate itself and look towards its own future.”

So has all the big Olympic talk at multinational agencies been wishful thinking? “I think so,” he says. “It’s very difficult for ways for [non-sponsor] brands working with [agencies other than Dentsu] to break through.” Indeed, even for accredited sponsors, the sheer number of direct competitors and complex nature of the rights presents a daunting challenge in terms of activation.

Improving office culture has been a priority for Cadell over the last three years and Cundy pledges to continue to support work-life balance. A challenge is likely to remain keeping middle managers, who are at the sharp end of client demands, on board. But the effort must be made. “We owe it to the 750 people who work here to treat them as colleagues, not simply as workers,” he says.

Cadell: "Japan taught me humility"

Upon leaving the company after the best part of a decade, Cadell himself is set to enjoy some leisure time that has until now surely been in short supply. He will base himself in France while also tending to a hotel he owns in Sri Lanka. “I’ve got a bucket list longer than your arm,” he says.

Looking back on his tenure in Japan, he says he still feels as positively about the market as when he took on the role, even if for most foreign agency heads, working in Japan ranks among the most challenging times of their career and can be disillusioning. He claims the company is “in a much stronger place financially” but is unable to share any numbers.

Japan taught me humility because of not just the complexity but also the vast variety and depth within this society. As a foreigner I don’t think you can ever truly understand what on earth is going on. 

He takes pride in having achieved what he sees as “greater harmony” between group companies, with business now more evenly divided. “One of the failings four years ago was that we had a lot of clients only working with one agency,” he says. Today, “we see spend diversified and that is the result of how we’re working internally, the collaborative spirit of how we get quite different cultures to come together, which supports the client and drives our own business.”

Lessons he will take from Japan include patience and in particular humility. “I thought after India, figuring out how to work with Indians as a foreigner is very hard, but you can see a way through,” he says. “Japan taught me humility because of not just the complexity but also the vast variety and depth within this society. As a foreigner I don’t think you can ever truly understand what on earth is going on. The moment you think you know what’s going on, you’re setting yourself up for a fall. So you learn the humility of always questioning yourself and going back to Japanese partners to see if you’re on the right track, never assuming.”

Asked what he will miss most about his work both as head of Japan and the region, Cadell is similarly low-key. “The ability to walk into a culture,” he says. “To sit down with a group of Filipinos [or other nationality] and learn about the culture. That’s why I’ve enjoyed the regional job—the people. It always goes back to the same thing, which is all this business is about.”

Campaign Japan

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