McCANN Worldgroup Malaysia has been one of the advertising agencies to watch over the last few years. Powered by a solid management team, it seems to have achieved a good balance between being business-oriented and creative-driven.
That balance is reflected during StarBizWeek’s latest interview with its chief executive officer Tony Savarimuthu, who shows this reporter three complex-looking diagrams that only a CEO or professor can love.
The diagrams, comprising boxes, arrows and bullet points, represent the McCann brand blueprints over the past several years.
McCann’s two executive creative directors Huang Ean Hwa and Lee Szu-Hung are also present at the interview and help take me through a series of heartwarming, informative and funny TV commercials created by the agency.
One Proton Saga commercial that they show features the lovable Datuk David Arumugam of Alleycats. Arumugam tells viewers: “When they explain about cars, it’s always technical. Boot space: 430 litres. What does that mean?” He fills up the boot with durians and concludes that “430 litres of boot space is equal to 53 durians.”
Savarimuthu has a harder task explaining what McCann Malaysia’s 2009 blueprint is equal to.
When Savarimuthu joined McCann Malaysia as managing director towards the end of 2002, he and his team developed the first blueprint that aimed to make the agency “a powerhouse of intellectual spirit.” That blueprint, Savarimuthu says, was internally focused.
The basic goal then was to increase intellectual capacity, which was partly achieved through the publication of its McCann Knowledge Quarterly journal and doing studies on consumer trends.
Every three years, Savarimuthu and his team revisited the blueprint. In 2006, the focus was to achieve a two-way exchange between the brand and the consumers.
“After ensuring that our consumer insights programme and knowledge base were very strong, we tried to make our product more relevant in terms of producing growth ideas. We produced a lot of branded content ideas (among them, the Ejen 016 TV series for DiGi) and reality shows such as GangStarz and Nescafe Kick-Start,” Savarimuthu recalls.
He points out that consumers are no longer passive. Consumers influence brands and sometimes they themselves create the advertising communication such as by putting something on YouTube or their blogs.
“Secondly, consumers expect brands to be responsible, not only from the corporate social responsibility perspective but also the ethical viewpoint,” he says.
This brings us to McCann Malaysia’s 2009 blueprint. Savarimuthu acknowledges that 2009 would be a tougher year due to issues like slower economic growth.
“We have to go back to the key tenets – how can we innovate communications?” he says.
This requires having different frames of reference in line with the challenging times. For example, a restaurant’s competitor nowadays is not just other restaurants but also food brought to work from home as well as time spent at the gym during lunch hour.
Savarimuthu says nowadays, consumers change behaviour more often and hence the lifespan of consumer insights are shorter.
“We have to understand that consumers are making short-term decisions, and our consumer insights programme needs to understand the dynamic changes that consumers are making in terms of media consumption and purchase habits. We have to be faster and more dynamic; go-to-market solutions must be a lot faster,” he says.
For 2009, Savarimuthu wants to see not only an “idea” culture but also a problem-solving culture in his organisation. “We need to ensure that all the minds that operate in our business are able to counsel clients and raise the intellectual bar for creative communications.”
Last year, in conjunction with its move to a new office in Petaling Jaya, McCann organised a series of talks that exposed its staff to external thought leaders.
This year the group has made its training activities more structured with the launch of a two-month programme called McCann Business School.
“We spent almost a year on the content, using external consultants,” says Savarimuthu.
About 50 of its 115-strong staff are undergoing this programme, which started recently and features internal and external speakers.
McCann Malaysia seems to get its priorities right. At the expense of winning creative awards, it began putting priority on keeping its business stable last year after parting ways with major client DiGi in early 2008.
While the group still submitted some entries for creative award shows, it was not a key priority, according to Savarimuthu. This may explain McCann Malaysia’s sudden drop from the top 10 rankings at the Kancil Awards last year (it ended up in 11th spot) after several years of strong showing, including being named Agency of the Year in 2006.
McCann’s executive creative directors Huang and Lee, while accepting the Kancils results, don’t believe the quality of the agency’s work has fallen. In fact, Lee feels the standard of its day-to-day work has improved.
The agency’s decision to be more business focused in 2008 netted it some notable accounts, including KFC, Malaysian International Islamic Financial Centre, Prudential, The Nomad and Aseambankers. It also re-pitched for the Proton business and won.
Despite no longer having the DiGi account, McCann still managed to see business growth last year, albeit in single digit.
Asked whether the agency will continue to grow this year amid the challenging economic scenario, Savarimuthu says: “If we have a plan and stick to it, and if we have good talent, I don’t see any reason that we should backtrack. We just need to keep the momentum going.”