IT was a year of celebration, and it was a year of despair. Such was 2002 for McCann-Erickson (M) Sdn Bhd, one of the country’s largest advertising agencies.
New York-headquartered McCann-Erickson Worldwide, which created memorable campaigns for clients such as Coca-Cola and MasterCard, celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2002. But rain fell on the Malaysian parade: the KL office failed to grab a single creative prize at the Kancil Awards last October.
In fact, McCann was the only agency ranked among the top 10 largest in the country that went away empty-handed that night.
Amid the gloom, however, there sprang great hope for a better future: towards the end of 2002, McCann Malaysia installed a brand-new management team comprising several of the industry’s most sought-after talent.
Moreover, the appointments mark an important milestone. For the first time in the local operation’s 37-year history, it has Malaysians in the roles of managing director (MD) and creative directors.
Tony Savarimuthu, the new MD, has spent 11 years at creative powerhouse Leo Burnett Malaysia. As the agency’s group director and later general manager, he has worked on key brands such as Petronas, Bumiputra-Commerce, Goodyear and Sony. Prior to coming to McCann in October 2002, he worked on the client side for one year as MBF Cards executive vice-president overseeing the sales, marketing and strategic functions.
Joining him at McCann were executive creative directors Lee Szu-Hung and Huang Ean Hwa, who previously worked with each other at Leo Burnett and BBDO Malaysia. The duo won Malaysia’s first Gold Lion at Cannes. They have also been accorded international recognition at the One Show, D&AD and the Asian Advertising Awards, and garnered more than 100 awards collectively at the local Kancil Awards.
McCann-Erickson Worldwide – the largest global advertising agency system with US$3 billion in gross income – is more known for its strategic thinking skills than for its creativity. This is echoed in the fact that it won more Advertising Effectiveness Awards (Effies – awards given based on business results achieved, such as increased sales) in the 1996-2002 period than any other advertising network.
While the group may not have a strong creative profile, it has begun making some headway in this within Asia. Its India-based operation, for example, recently had the biggest haul at the country’s advertising awards show.
With the new team at the helm in Malaysia, the KL office is similarly poised to boost its creative reputation.
Over the past few years, the agency has gone through some turbulence, losing key accounts such as Maxis and Motorola and retrenching staff. “This is a rebuild year for us,” Savarimuthu tells BizWeek.
And among the first things he rebuilt was McCann’s physical working environment, which entailed more than aesthetic changes.
Previously the managing director’s office was on a different floor from the creative department – “like an ivory tower actually,” he says. Savarimuthu decided to put his office right next to those of his two executive creative directors (ECDs), thus literally moving into the creative department.
“I want to be in the thick of the action with the ECDs,” he explains.
Huang seems as excited about this move as Savarimuthu. “It reflects our stance that creativity can’t be disjointed from the realities of the business everyday,” he says, adding that being creative is not just for creativity’s sake.
“I don’t think agencies in Malaysia lack the ability to deliver ground-breaking work, work that is different enough to stand out. But I think the clients generally fall into the safe area because that’s the type of work they see, that’s what has become the norm. It’s every individual’s job in this office to challenge the norm,” Huang says.
“Tony (Savarimuthu), I think, is one MD who believes in creative work. Him sitting in the creative department is a huge statement to everybody that he’s going to get it done,” he adds.
Last year McCann Malaysia billed RM95 million and Savarimuthu is only targeting to maintain about the same level this year.
He says: “While achieving growth is important, our current focus is on improving the creative product.”
“At the end of the day, we believe that good creative products will lead to business growth.”
Another change is moving Result: McCann , previously operating at another building in KL, to McCann-Erickson’s office at Menara IMC.
Result: McCann, whose managing director reports to Savarimuthu, has two McCann-Erickson WorldGroup’s brands under its stable: MRM Partners (customer relationship marketing) and Momentum (experiential marketing and sales promotion). Savarimuthu says McCann Malaysia intends to place a greater emphasis on cross-disciplinary solutions, in line with the Brand Optimisation Map, McCann-Erickson group’s integrated approach to strategy development, creative and media execution, and campaign evaluation.
Teamwork is important to Savarimuthu, and he started thinking of his potential team even before he joined McCann last October. (McCann-Erickson area director (South-East Asia) Ray Dempsey, who previously headed the local office, approached him while he was at MBF Cards but he only joined McCann six months later)
“I said I’d come if I could find the right creative people with the right amount of energy and if we got a common vision. As much as I believe in myself, I needed people whom I can believe in and who have the right ability,” Savarimuthu says.
Huang chips in: “Likewise.” According to Huang, he wouldn’t have joined McCann if not for Savarimuthu.
Savarimuthu wants McCann to be seen, as an employer of choice so good people would want to join. And he feels having Huang and Lee there would facilitate that because “they’ve helped create many market leaders among brands they’ve worked on, and they’re young and energetic.”
Prior to McCann, Savarimuthu had been with only one advertising agency – Leo Burnett – which has achieved notable success both in terms of the number of creative awards won and business growth.
Asked why he left Leo Burnett after almost 11 years, Savarimuthu says: “I believe I’ve hit all the milestones I had set for myself at LB – in winning new business, helping the clients that I worked on move creativity up, setting up all the integrated capabilities and hiring good people. As I looked at it, what else was there to do? So it was time to move on.”
If Savarimuthu is looking for challenges, he can certainly find them at McCann, which is in many ways an antithesis of his former agency – in terms of working philosophy, creative reputation, business growth, and dependence on foreign clients. But with his experience and that of his team, one wouldn’t be too surprised if Savarimuthu repeats the feats he has achieved previously.
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