THE Yasmin Ahmad-directed TV commercial entitled Funeral, which won two gold Lions at Cannes recently, was a collaboration between Leo Burnett/Arc’s offices in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
It was shot in Singapore and for Singapore’s Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), but many Malaysian talents were involved, including the director/scriptwriter (Yasmin), director of photography, art directors, editor, music composer and main actress (Jo Kukathas).
That commercial is but one example of how the two Leo Burnett/Arc offices work together. And their level of cooperation is poised to strengthen further following the appointment of Tan Kien Eng as chief executive officer for both offices in October last year (he was formerly managing director of only the KL operations).
In 2007, when I last interviewed Tan, he had been working towards getting Leo Burnett and Arc in Malaysia to work more closely together. (Leo Burnett was handling mainstream advertising while Arc was doing marketing services such as PR and direct marketing.)
Today, he says, Leo Burnett/Arc Worldwide creative people think “through the line”, not separating the mainstream and below-the-line communications.
“The entire structure between Arc and Leo Burnett is a lot more fluid today,” he tells StarBizWeek when met at his office in Menara Olympia, Kuala Lumpur.
“Today my role has gone beyond pulling Arc and Leo Burnett Malaysia together. It is also to pull Leo Burnett/Arc Malaysia and Singapore together. So I’m going through stage three, trying to get the best out of the talents from both markets.”
For certain pitches, talents from Singapore would be utilised. “For the recent Samsung pitch that we (the Malaysian office) won, we used strategic planners from Singapore as they have background in consumer electronics. That’s how we approach clients’ problems today. We’ve gone beyond our shores.”
In fact, the Samsung pitch marked the first joint Malaysia-Singapore pitch since Tan became CEO of both the Malaysian and Singapore offices.
Tan, who is currently flying to Singapore every week based on client needs, says that the offices are pulling the best people together.
“For example, Singapore has begun tapping into our digital back-end technology capability (design, programming and engineering),” he says.
“It (the collaboration) has also made people’s jobs a lot more interesting, with more people travelling up and down. The strategic planner from Singapore comes here quite frequently, and my head of digital is flying down a lot.”
The next step, Tan says, is to pull the management team closer together through more frequent dialogues.
“This is so that you don’t try to re-invent everything and duplicate efforts,” he explains.
The two offices will still have separate management teams, he says.
Tan says that as a network, there have been a lot of changes at Leo Burnett in the last two years, with a lot of central marketing drive from the Chicago headquarters providing a lot of assistance in terms of category or segment knowledge to help the local office win.
“There’s a tighter collaboration across borders. And it helps,” he says.
Asked why he is entrusted by the regional and global management to oversee two markets, Tan says it’s because the Malaysian office had been performing and growing consistently even during the recent recession.
Leo Burnett/Arc Malaysia, whose major clients include YTL, Petronas, Philip Morris and Dutch Lady, recorded revenue growth of about 6% last year. This was despite some of its clients cutting spending amid the tough market conditions.
In contrast, the Singapore office’s performance was stagnant in 2009. When Tan first took over the helm, the office was slightly less than half the size of its Malaysian counterpart in both revenue and staff.
Tan plans to double the Singapore agency’s size this year. So far, he says, everything is on track and the number of staff has grown by 50%.
“We’ve hired top people – people who are senior with good reputation. So I see myself becoming redundant soon!” he quips.
Tan says this year is also a tough year for certain product categories, as consumers are mindful of spending. He expects the Malaysian office to maintain last year’s growth level in 2010.
Tan claims the agency could grow its business by double digits if it wanted to, but it prefers to take its own pace.
“We don’t want our people to burn out. It would take a while to staff up, so we’re very selective in terms of new business. That’s why sometimes we have to turn down invitations to pitch (for new business). It’s better to manage our existing clients well than to go after new business and lose the clients,” he says.
“Sometimes winning the wrong type of client can damage the agency’s reputation. If you look at the quality of print advertising in Malaysia versus Singapore or London, you can see the difference. Our ads tend to be less focused, less single-minded, without the big-brand feel for some clients. It reflects the maturity of the industry.”
Leo Burnett/Arc Malaysia has done well in client servicing. In fact, it was ranked first overall among ad agencies in the recent CREAM (Client Relationships and Experiences of Ad Agencies in Malaysia) independent survey covering 350 marketers and advertisers.
Tan says Leo Burnett/Arc Malaysia, which has a staff of 155, may end up this year with about 165.
“It’s not just about hiring people for the sake of hiring. We’re getting more and more selective. We’re looking into ‘practical magic’ – it’s not just creativity but also accountability, meaning having people who are able to look at clients’ problems creatively and also from the business perspective. This is becoming critical as under the current situation, clients’ shareholders are screaming for profit.”
The agency wants to strike a good balance between creativity and effectiveness, he says.
In this regard, Leo Burnett/Arc Malaysia seems to be doing all right.
It not only performed strongly at the 2009 Kancil Awards (where it was named Agency of the Year and the MCYS commercial won the coveted Golden Kancil), but it also grabbed one of the only two gold awards presented at last year’s Effie Awards Malaysia (the Effies is based on marketing effectiveness).
Tan says there are too many award shows and the agency has scaled down its entries.
“I remember when Yasmin (who was executive creative director) was around and we were talking about it. She said people were starving in Africa and we spent all this money on awards. We both agreed that awards were important because they gave us the publicity, but I think we need to be more practical.”
Compared to a decade ago, Tan says, the number of submissions from the agency to even the local Kancil Awards has been reduced a lot.
“Ten years ago Burnett could easily win 100 awards a night. We’re not so crazy for that anymore. Awards are good for morale and to motivate the young creative people, but at the end of the day, we don’t want to send the wrong message to our clients – that we’re here just to win awards. We’re here to solve our clients’ business problems.
“But we’ll continue to do great work, because in challenging times, we need to stand out and we use creativity to stand out. We do great storytelling from great insight.”
Asked how the Singapore office is doing in terms of creative, Tan says it has also won gold Effies and Best TV Commercial in collaboration with the Malaysian office (the MYCS commercial). “Our executive creative director in Singapore also won Creative of the Year,” he says.
Next Sunday will be the first anniversary of Yasmin’s death, but her spirit still lingers at Leo Burnett/Arc Malaysia. On a wall in Tan’s room, one would find a photograph showing a mural of Yasmin painted on a wall near Central Market.
On how the agency has been coping with the death of Yasmin last year, Tan says that even before she passed away, the agency had been introducing a lot of internal training.
“Basically we continuously reward people and inspire them through sharing of work. We constantly need to reinvent ourselves while keeping our core culture,” he says.
After a year, Leo Burnett has yet to hire an executive creative director to replace Yasmin.
However, it has promoted Yasmin’s husband, senior art director Tan Yew Leong, to joint creative director last year along with (copywriter) Iska Hashim. Zaidi Awang, formerly art director, was promoted to creative director for certain accounts.
“They’ve worked with Yasmin for more than 10 years so they understand the legacy,” Tan says.
Leo Burnett is currently working on a book on Yasmin containing anecdotes about her as well as her work, jokes and teachings. It is not expected to be ready by next week though.
“Hopefully it will be out by year-end,” Tan says.