TONY Savarimuthu is stepping down as the Association of Accredited Advertising Agents Malaysia (4As) president after two years.
The 4As will hold its AGM next week, which is expected to see 4As vice-president Datuk Johnny Mun taking over the helm.
Savarimuthu, as president, will likely be best remembered for his emphasis on transforming the industry through knowledge and education.
His departure coincides with his establishment of strategic branding and marketing consultancy Merdeka LHS with creative partners Huang Ean Hwa and Szu Lee.
However, he says he actually decided to step down long ago.
Savarimuthu, who will be the managing director of the new venture, says: “I decided much earlier to leave the 4As, even before I made the career decision to set up Merdeka LHS. Going in, I knew I was only going to serve one term.”
He points out that he has served in the 4As for more than a decade − six years as vice-president under president Datuk Vincent Lee (2005-2011), two years as president, and three to four years as council member.
“When we (Lee and he) started this project of trying to reinvent the industry and add further value to our members, we had a road map. To a large extent, we feel that we have set the industry on a course that others can contribute or bring new ideas to improve our business,” he tells StarBizWeek.
“Also, there is a necessity for new ideas by giving the opportunity for a new president and vice-president to look at things from a different perspective in order to improve our business. So, a leadership change gives an opportunity for new and exciting things to happen as well.”
He says that to a large extent, he has implemented a lot of the projects that he had on his plate.
Among others, he and council member Omar Shaari have evolved the ASTRO-4As post-graduate scholarship programme that was originally started by Lee in 2007.
The 4As' partnership with the Berlin School of Creative Leadership (at Steinbeis University), which is headed by former Leo Burnett Advertising chief creative officer Michael Conrad, is entering a new stage where more people can benefit annually.
Among those who have received the Astro-4As scholarship to attend the executive MBA programme are McCann creative director Gavin Hoh and OgilvyOne account director Lau Kuan Cheng.
“We've worked with the Berlin School to shorten it and make it into an advanced management programme in creative leadership. Instead of sending one person a year to an MBA programme (five one-week modules over a one-year period), this year we will be able to fully sponsor about 15 people for a course that lasts for about a week,” says Savarimuthu, adding that the 4As is also exploring how to dovetail the programme into the Spikes Asia Festival of Creativity.
The Shine training programme which he initiated with Lee has churned out nearly 500 graduates. Developed by 95% The Advertising Academy for those with less than three years of industry experience, the three-day experiential programme is aimed at empowering and inspiring them to create “remarkable breakthroughs in their personal lives, their organisation and the industry.”
“Our business has a high staff turnover (of 15% to 20%). This helps them to manage stress and tension. We help them to roadmap their careers, manage goals and be cognisant of some of the challenges that they will face,” Savarimuthu says.
The programme has been so successful that the Asian Federation of Advertising Associations has adapted it for international participants.
Last year, the 4As test-piloted the Graduate Fellowship Programme, which is to enable fresh graduates and people who are switching careers to have a quick immersion into the industry. The programme will be launched later this year.
“Agencies will sponsor the candidates and they are paid during training. The candidates must also pay a certain amount towards the training fees to show that they are serious,” Savarimuthu says.
Recently, the 4As and 95% The Advertising Academy organised an open forum attended by more than 100 academics and course administrators from the advertising and marketing communications fraternity. Over 21 institutions were represented in this dialogue.
“We explained to them how our industry could help them to have content that's more relevant to our business and we asked them to help recruit more people into this Graduate Fellowship Programme.”
On the Boomerang Membership Accreditation Programme, whereby 4As member agencies are required to send staff for training and participate in industry events in order to gain a minimum number of points to remain members, he says training accreditation is important to upgrade talent.
“To demand more fees, agencies have to show clients that we're investing in human resources. We want our business to be designated as a strategic industry because it is directly related to increasing the GDP share of the service industry. We need more professionals in the arena to ensure that our branding practices are of global standard.”
Asked what he wishes he could have done better during his tenure, Savarimuthu says the creative barometer is “somewhat stagnant.”
“I think we must always be constructively dissatisfied with the output so that we'll improve. Our job as industry leaders is to push the boundaries both within our agency and with our clients.
“The bane of our industry is reducing creativity to the lowest common denominator. Together with committee decision-making, it becomes very hard to create work that is of a global standard,” he says.
“Advertising agencies and marketers have to take joint responsibility for some of those KPIs (key performance indicators) for our business. How much of the work makes you really stand out? There are some bright sparks but I think it is not enough to shake the industry to the point that Malaysian creative industry is spoken in many circles.”
Over the last two years, the 4As has built a closer relationship with media owners, whom Savarimuthu prefers to call “creative media businesses”. “It's not just about obtaining revenue for us (agencies) but about how we can work towards providing better opportunities for our clients,” he elaborates.
Savarimuthu has strived towards professionally upgrading the advertising industry so that it can play a key role in the service sector, contributing to the gross national income and making Malaysia a creative hub. “We can only do that if we are able to attract, retain and inspire talent in our industry,” he says.
Asked to comment on Savarimuthu's performance as president, Lowe & Partners Malaysia chairman Khairudin Rahim says it is very difficult to isolate Tony's term from that of Lee's “because they were already working so well as a pair when he (Savarimuthu) was vice-president.”
“I would say a lot of credit has to go to both of them in steering the 4As council to become such a respected organisation today.
“The main theme I like about Tony and his council is the focus on a very simple objective: trying to tell advertisers and those in the business world that you can grow brands through creativity. By making more and more businessmen understand that, they were equating the value of creativity and brands to the national economy.”