MICHAEL Constantine experienced a range of emotions when he was offered to take over the reins of McCann Worldgroup Malaysia, one of the country’s high-profile advertising groups.
He describes the emotional stages as excitement, closely followed by anxiety, and then confidence and determination.
Constantine became president and CEO in February and later brought in fellow Englishman Richard Irvine as chief creative officer. They have known each other for over 20 years, last working together helming Leo Burnett Manila (1998-2003).
Constantine and Irvine came to McCann Malaysia to fill in the void left by the departure of former CEO Tony Savarimuthu and his multi-award-winning creative partners Huang Ean Hwa and Lee Szu-Hung.
The trio had built McCann Malaysia into a solid group with six Agency of the Year accolades over the last decade, and they were leaving to set up strategic brand consultancy Merdeka LHS, which notably is a McCann affiliate.
On the first emotion − excitement − Constantine tells StarBizWeek he was excited to come back to work in Asia where he had spent 15 years of his career and to return to advertising.
In the last four years he had worked in the movie and television industry on the client side, as head of global marketing for London-based visual entertainment services group Prime Focus.
Constantine had lived and worked in nine countries but never in Malaysia. Irvine, meanwhile, had been Publicis Worldwide Malaysia executive creative director for two years before taking on his current role.
“The anxiety was following in the footprints of these three heroes (Savarimuthu, Huang and Lee) although we knew them for Leo Burnett days,” Constantine says. “They are legends in this market. Apart from being wonderful people, you have to admire what they’ve achieved in the last 10 years. So the anxiety was, How the heck do you follow that?”
The third stage of emotion was confidence. “Richard (Irvine) and I have done this before. We have over 30 years of experience in Asia between us. The confidence was that we weren’t starting as a new team. We know each other really well and share a lot of the opinions about this business. We are different but complementary,” he says.
The partnership has been proven to be effective in Manila, where they took Leo Burnett “from four or five in the market to number one creatively.”
The fourth emotion that Constantine felt was determination. “We have a wonderful legacy to build on here. McCann has a great reputation and our determination was to build on that and take it to the next level, wherever that is,” he says.
So, what are his plans to take McCann Malaysia to that next level?
Ad agencies, Constantine says, have to change their structure and approach in line with the changed media landscape with social and digital media.
“The major changes we’re doing is not doing the traditional things differently or giving them up, but ensuring that we overlay that with the new reality, social. Creativity continues to be incredibly important to us. Big ideas built on very powerful insights continue to be very important to us,” he says.
“We believe that unless ideas are informed by real insights, they’re worthless.”
One of McCann’s strengths, he adds, is the vast amount of insights − truths about brands and consumers − that it has collected globally.
Constantine says clients today want quality, speed and cost-effectiveness. Hence, the agency must be organised to do that.
“This means you do not build huge structures inside the agency as we did traditionally. You have to organise around the client’s challenge,” he says.
With speed-to-market being critical, clients worldwide are calling for reintegration of the various marketing disciplines and looking for a single point of contact, rather than dealing with a lot of specialists and suppliers.
“The way that we’re organised today, a client brief comes in and it is looked at immediately on a totally media-agnostic basis. We would look at it with the appropriate specialists − the business person, the planner who gives us the consumer insight, the senior creative and then what we would call engagement planning, which is how you bring this stuff to market; that used to be like the media planner in the old days.
“Once you got that, you get a totally different solution, because what could happen is, the solution might be to lead with digital rather than TV. Rather than these things being cast downstream to specialists, they’re looked at in the centre straight away. It’s quicker, you get the best brains looking at it, and you get much better solutions, which are more holistic.”
In addition to changing the way it organises, McCann is also making sure that digital is not just another medium or another specialisation but is central to the agency.
He says it’s not simply a matter of “Consumers love social; let’s do something which gets me 500,000 impressions.”
“How good is that idea? How good are those impressions? It has to be based on a strong creative idea,” he explains.
He then shows a three-minute railway safety commercial done by McCann office in Melbourne for Metro Trains. Called Dumb Ways to Die, the video has gone hugely viral with over 47 million hits on YouTube alone.
“It uses the medium brilliantly, with simple animation and catchy tune, and it’s not in your face. It’s an incredibly good use of the social media, because social media takes an idea that people believe it and lets them amplify it many more times,” he says.
At the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival this month, the campaign won five Grand Prix, the highest number of Grand Prix for an entry in the festival’s 60-year history.
To show McCann Worldgroup’s commitment to make digital “mainstream”, Constantine says the network recently organised a four-day Digital Velocity workshop in Singapore attended by 50 senior people of McCann in Asia-Pacific.
“People think digital is terribly specialised, but I would say it’s exactly the same as when radio came and then TV appeared,” he says.
Besides building on the digital capability of McCann, which currently has a staff of 125, Constantine is putting more focus in developing the engagement planning group, i.e. people with user-interface skills.
McCann Malaysia is also introducing a new service called Craft that offers local adaptation work for overseas advertisements (see other story on this page).
Due to the talent pool shortage in Malaysia, McCann is committed to bringing in interns and graduates and training them up. “We have done this in the past, but we are now looking at as a very key stone of the future of the agency. This is not only in account management but also creative and digital,” he says.
Constantine says the group is looking at graduate recruitment and developing a closer relationship with universities.
“We’ll start in a soft way this year with a view of getting into a harder version of the programme next year. We see the need to be an acceleration of talent (coming in); otherwise, we (the industry) will find ourselves with salary and title inflation.”
On Merdeka LHS, Constantine calls it “a very important component of McCann Worldgroup in Asia-Pacific.”
“We have a formal affiliation agreement between Merdeka LHS and McCann Erickson for mutual benefit, and it exists because of the high regard that we hold for Tony, Hwa and Szu and also, I suspect, the reality is when you go out and set up your own company, it’s different from being supported by a big infrastructure. The whole transition period here has been a pleasure,” he says.
On the length of affiliation, Constantine says he can’t comment on it.
“They’re not setting up an agency that’s competitive to McCann. They want to move into a different area which is much more upstream (much more business and brand consultancy), and we’re very happy for them, and we hope there will be mutual referrals. This is mutually beneficial and it’s something that we hope will last a long time,” he says.
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