Faaez Samadi
Jun 3, 2019

Wunderman Thompson APAC CEO: “The pendulum has swung too far towards efficiency”

Annette Male tells Campaign Asia-Pacific how the new agency wants to redress the balance between creativity and tech, and why talent is central to her leadership strategy.

Wunderman Thompson APAC CEO: “The pendulum has swung too far towards efficiency”

On her 82nd day as APAC CEO of Wunderman Thompson, Annette Male sits down to explain just what has been going under the hood of one of adland’s most eye-catching new agencies. Unsurprisingly, it’s been pretty busy.

Male has already managed eight of 11 market visits, talking to people at all levels of the agency to decide what Wunderman Thompson APAC is going to be. A very significant part of this, she says, was getting her entire leadership team sorted, both regional and in-market, which has happened inside 11 weeks.

“I’m very happy with my regional APAC leadership team,” she says. “We’ve got a really strong lineup, a good mix of strength in capabilities across CX, data, commerce and strategy.”

The newly created chief client growth officer position is of particular significance, Male says, as she wants to be surgically focused on clients.

“When we mapped out all our top 20 revenue clients with Wunderman and JWT business, it was pretty significant, and also how many markets we touch with those clients, whether it’s HSBC, Friso, Unilever, Microsoft or Shell,” she explains. “The chief client growth officer role is to look at our top 20 clients across the region and see how we can be better connected.”

Annette Male

Supporting this are APAC regional client leads, another new set of roles Male has installed to offer clients better service. Wunderman Thompson said all its local market heads and regional leadership were in place by June 1.

With that piece complete, what about the vision? How is Wunderman Thompson, an amalgamation of a creative giant in J Walter Thompson and a data-led marketing expert in Wunderman, going to differentiate itself and ensure it’s more than the sum of its parts?

This is a big question, and Male says it’s understandably a work in progress, but the foundations are clear. “I think it’s about meaningful customer relationships, and we’re only going to be able to do that by unifying the creative effectiveness side with the data efficiency side,” she opines.

“From years of being in the industry, I think the pendulum has swung really, really far towards efficiency. It was all personalisation, dynamic content optimisation, use of data-driven marketing. The uniqueness of Wunderman Thompson is it’s still got that efficiency but it brings in the creative side, and if you don’t have the creativity you’re not delivering on the whole package for clients.”

This philosophy is already being put to the test, with Male saying that most markets are already operating and pitching as Wunderman Thompson. Client interest is reportedly high. The agency has already won nine pitches—most recently Changi Airport Group­— with another 80 in play throughout the region.

From a structural point of view, Male responds, in terms of building the brand, defining the culture and installing leadership, it’s done. The local offices are now focused on building the right capabilities for their markets.

“In terms of what we do in which markets, I’m keen not to do a cookie-cutter approach for each one,” she states. “The questions that I ask the team are ‘is there a client demand [for a certain capability]?’ and ‘is there a market need?’ If there is, great, go build it, prove to me from a business case point of view that there is demand and we’ll help you invest in those capabilities. If not, don’t worry about it.”

Male adds that here again, Wunderman Thompson is doing it differently, especially with regard to investment in resources.

“Agency models are very much based on ‘win the business, build the capabilities’, and the bit that I’m loving is we identify where the opportunity is, invest in the capabilities, and then deliver on the business. The support that I get from the likes of Mel [Edwards, Wunderman Thompson global CEO] and Diane [Holland, global CFO], they just allow you to make good business decisions and then give you the support and resources to deliver on them.”

While the vision is set and the structure established, arguably the most critical step in Wunderman Thompson’s success is integration. Bringing together two extremely different agency identities and emerging as one unified organisation is surely the biggest challenge.

See Annette Male speak at Women Leading Change

We'll be hearing from expert speakers like Annette Male, and discussing gender equality and attitudes towards women in media and marketing, at our annual Women Leading Change conference in Singapore on 4 June 2019. Register your interest and find out more at www.womenleadingchange.asia.

Male is candid about the task. “I’m never going to say everything’s perfect because that would just be a bullshit answer. I’ve found it’s different in every market. But that’s why I was so keen to get local market leadership in place really quickly, and also make sure they are a really good blend of Wunderman and JWT. So you’re basically bringing together the best of both worlds."

It’s challenging, she says, because it’s hard to change behaviour and ways of working. “The way that JWT did things versus the way Wunderman did, there’s no right or wrong. We’ve got to find what the right way is for Wunderman Thompson. Striking that balance is tricky.

“I’ve said to everyone ‘this won’t be overnight’. We’re not going to fix it immediately. We’re going to do stuff together, win pitches or not win, but the main thing is with a little bit of effort, pain and reflection, it will make it a success going forward.”

Fortunately, Male says, the one constant she’s found, whether from JWT or Wunderman, is “a bunch of really talented people”, and taking care of talent is crucial to her leadership ethos, hence hiring an APAC chief talent officer.

It’s why Male has made sure to meet employees outside the senior leadership, so she can hear directly from them. “It’s finding out what really matters to the people who are pretty much delivering the work,” she explains. “They were some of my best meetings.”

Male is extremely keen to implement a comprehensive talent strategy that covers recruitment, onboarding, training, retention, rewarding and even exit, so staff feel secure and supported.

“Everyone knows that agencies are not necessarily excellent at delivering this and it’s really tough on talent,” she admits. “If we haven’t got people at work that love working every single day at Wunderman Thompson, then they’re not going to be happy, clients pick that up, then the quality of the work suffers.

“It’s a very simple chain of events, and I think we sometimes forget that, because there’s so much focus on what the finance strategy is. For us, the talent strategy is sitting side by side with the finance strategy.”

With all the pieces on the board and finally in place, Male is confident that Wunderman Thompson’s offering can set it apart in APAC’s marketing and communications landscape.

“I do genuinely believe we’re unique,” she states. “Fast-forward a few months and we’re going to have something that no one else has in the marketplace. That’s the bit that’s really exciting.”

Campaign Asia

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