The importance of China and the time when Keith Weed was 'obnoxious': A day with Sorrell in Singapore

Sir Martin Sorrell at the opening of S4 Capital office in Singapore.

Sir Martin Sorrell officiated the opening of S4 Capital’s offices in Singapore on Friday (May 3) where he called for clients to respect their agencies and reiterated why the company’s first-party data model is important for the industry.

The opening of the office in Singapore, which will also house S4’s subsidiaries MediaMonks and MightyHive, will help the company ramp up its Asia Pacific operations, which accounts for 7% of its revenue.

Aside from showcasing the work it has done with the likes of Procter and Gamble, Shiseido, and Starbucks, the event also saw The Drum’s Asia Pacific publisher Charlotte McEleny hosting two panels on digital transformation and creativity with industry veterans.

Here’s what you need to know.

Respect goes both ways

Kicking off the event was a one-on-one conversation between Simon Kahn, the chief marketing officer for APAC at Google and Sorrell, where the former WPP founder spoke about an encounter he had with former Unilever chief marketing officer Keith Weed in a meeting when he was at the holding company.

Describing Weed as ‘obnoxious’ during the meeting, Sorrell recalled that when he asked Weed why he was being so difficult, Weed replied that he had just come from a meeting where he was treated the same way and decided to do the same when meeting WPP.

According to Sorrell, this is an example of referred pain. Instead of doing this, he says, clients need to respect the expertise of agencies. He explained that clients who give agencies respect get the best work from their agencies, though, he added, respect is intangible.

He reasoned that often agencies do not get the respect they deserved because they do not have control of first-party data and were slow in responding to clients’ requests. That is something he is trying to change with S4 Capital, he said, adding that it will be difficult if clients do not change their structure as well.

“There is no point in us having a unitary profit and loss if we have to deal with multiple points from the client. This means they must change their structure too. The walls in the walled gardens of platform owners such as Google and Facebook started to grow and coincided in 2016, when clients thought that they could establish a closer, direct relationship with consumers, but they found out these platforms blocked that relationship and their access to data,” he explained.

Sorrell also predicted that APAC and the Americas will be two regions to watch for moving forward, as China will be a force to be reckoned with. He noted there is a sense that the west does not want China to succeed, citing the example of Huawei, a brand he said he is keeping an eye on.

The marketer’s role in digital transformation

On a panel about digital transformation was David Porter, the vice president for global media in Asia, Africa, Middle East, Turkey & Russia at Unilever, Shufen Goh, the principal of R3 and Jennifer Villalobos the vice president and head of digital business at NTUC Income.

The panellists discussed whether marketers should have the role of driving digital transformation and if marketers are qualified enough to do this, compared to a chief technology officer.

With so much change afoot for businesses, it can make some brands risk-averse, said Goh, who explained that it is very difficult to keep that risk if a brand does not have a way to measure the impact of marketing.

She noted that in Asia, the region is still behind in terms of how it measures marketing because for a lot of brands, marketing is new and for growth markets, there is no pressure to make sure every dollar counts as.

“It starts with whether you can justify that investment first and if they can, they can create a bigger risk appetite for different scenarios. It comes back to a lack of proper management framework,” she explained. “I don’t think there is an inherent conservative mindset. We work with a lot of clients in Asia and we see a lot of appetite for experimenting.

Porter agreed that there wasn't an inherent risk-averse mindset, saying he does not recognise that side of Asia at all after working in Shanghai for four years, where if ‘you snooze, you lose’.

“The speed of change there is phenomenal and the speed of change in South East Asia is now moving at 'Shanghai Speed'. We are not behind the curve at all,” he explained.

When asked how they measured the success of something so big and critical like digital transformation, Porter said that Unilever is measuring the amount of time its staff are educating themselves a month and their confidence to work in the space because "the last thing anyone at Unilever or P&G needs is another dashboard to work with".

For Villalobos, who is managing digital transformation projects at NTUC Income, she said she was measuring speed-to-market and that, while they were launching test products quickly already, it wasn't fast enough.

Always-on creative

As consumer habits change, there are more screens and more opportunities to engage with consumers. For brands like Johnson & Johnson and Coca-Cola, they are always engaging consumers regardless of platforms because they want to tell their stories.

Pratik Thakar, the director and head of integrated marketing communications for the ASEAN Business Unit at Coca-Cola explained that when the beverage giant look a brand recall, it wants to create an experience where it is ‘always-on’.

He explained that whether it is text on Coke bottles, relaxing in Costa Coffee or the cinema experience, Coca-Cola understands that everywhere is an experience and it does not have an option about when to engage the consumer.

For Johnson & Johnson, Richa Goswami, the global head of content, creative excellence and digital platforms at the pharmaceutical giant, she pointed out that brands today do not have a choice not to change.

“When I think of J&J and always-on, I think people don't buy the product we sell, but the story of our brands which are relevant, regardless of platforms,” she explained.

The panel also included Nicola Eliot, the director for Storyworks in APAC at BBC, who said that the company had already started shifting its storytelling formats to whatever was fit-for-purpose.

While Victor Knaap, the chief executive officer of MediaMonks and the executive director at S4 Capital, shared that too many brands were still cutting up TVC ads for digital formats. He shared a quote he liked which said, 'if you cut a car in half, it doesn't make two bicycles'.

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