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Barry Cupples on six years as APAC CEO of OMG

Barry CupplesIn an exclusive interview, Barry Cupples talks to Mumbrella about what he’s learned in the six years he’s worked in Asia running Omnicom Media Group.

In less than two months, Barry Cupples will leave Asia to move back to the London to take a global role as chief executive of OMG’s trading, analytics and investment and capability development. The inimitable straight-talking Bazza talks to Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks about his legacy, his successor, his predecessor, work-life balance, the most frustrating thing about working in Asia, his hatred of emails and the importance of a happy wife.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in the six years you’ve worked in Asia?

If I’m honest, the key thing I learned was the need to be patient, which goes against my nature. When I first came to the region, I just didn’t have that in my head. I wanted to run without really knowing how to walk.

I wouldn’t say it was that it was a culture shock coming to Asia. I’ve worked in different regions and diverse ones like Central and Eastern Europe, so I was ready for a new challenge and a new environment. But it took me a while to get my head around the different pace and style of working in Asia Pac.

To use a football analogy, you can’t go in two-footed in Asia. You need to observe the culture much more closely than you do in Europe. I was a little blind to that, and on occasion this mentality stopped me from getting the best out of situations. Back in 2008, I was frustrated in myself that I could not set the pace, or get the traction that I had done in Europe. It took an away-day with the management team to get on the right track, where we did some soul searching. As a person, I’m open to criticism. And my team told me that I needed to be more patient. It didn’t happen overnight, but gradually my eyes began to open. I started to achieve more by stepping back. I let my teams do their thing and gave them space to spread their wings.

Have you set out to achieve what you wanted when you started?

I would say no. And I’m not saying this with self-effacing humility. I’m not one for pats on the back or people who look for plaudits or platitudes.

The only real goal I had was growth, and to build a happy place where people really didn’t mind coming to work. That’s my outlook on life. I don’t want to ever dread the prospect of coming in to work, and I would hate to think that my colleagues did.

I didn’t set goals for billings, revenue or profits. But I did want us to be best in the region, and to constantly strive to be the best. By the end of my first year, I was pleasantly surprised. The vast majority of our senior teams were telling us that we were trying to be different, that we were trying to be better, that we were doing things in the right way. We weren’t the finished article then. And we’re still not now. There’s still plenty of work to do, but OMD and PHD are healthy and developing strongly.

Such as?

I’ve not done as good a job as I would have liked in making Southeast Asia the jewel in the crown that it deserves to be. To be fair, I’ve been distracted by the growth in China, India and Australia, and in maintaining and growing our businesses there. My score-card for Southeast Asia would be average at best. I’m not happy with myself in that regard, and I feel that I’ve let the SEA guys down.

What’s the secret to survival in a job like yours?

Two things. One, to not take yourself too seriously. If I did, my mates would anyway rip me to shreds. I’m not a believer in going out to “beat up” our rivals, and obsessing about where we are better and where we are worse. I gladly sit in a bar, have a drink, and chew the fat about the industry with the opposition. After all, they have the just same job with a different badge.

Secondly, you’ve got to have an understanding other half. Unhappy wife, unhappy life. And my wife Michelle, has been incredible. She’s put up with me travelling constantly for fifteen years. I haven’t missed out on what’s really important in my kids’ lives thankfully, but I have missed out on more moments than I should.

What’s your approach to work-life balance?

I discuss this with Chewy [Cheuk Chiang, the APAC CEO of PHD, who will take over from Cupples as regional head of OMG] a lot. I feel like a fraud presenting to teams internally on work-life balance. I’m a keen golfer and I’ve played six times in the past two years.

I just haven’t found the time to do the “other things”. I stay late in the office and I’m often on conference calls when I get home. I love it all, so no complaints.

I think the Australians have got it right. They don’t really want their people in the office after 7pm, which is a very different to how things work in other parts of the region. Yes, the difference is partly cultural. We all know that in some markets, people would rather be at work than go home, where things can be less comfortable and they may live with their parents. It’s easier to be at work. And yes, it’s unrealistic to think that just because people work late, they are always working. Some will be using the internet for legitimate entertainment or whatever. But even so, the hours that people work in this region would frighten people in other markets.

The problem with working late is, I’m not sure anyone can be truly productive after 8pm. By 10pm, no one can really do their best work. You can do functional and transactional stuff, but not good strategic work. It’s a matter of human metabolics. If you’re tired, you’re not performing at your best. Ideally, I want our guys to go home, get rested and come into work the next day energised.

How do you feel you have approached things differently to your predecessor, Mike Cooper?

Mike set me a fantastic foundation and platform to build on. Everything I’ve done should be judged by the foundation he built, which was solid and established. What was clear was that it was still work in progress. We didn’t have a central team or a dedicated new business team. I set up several SBUs [special business units] in the first two years to increase our capabilities – a content division, an international team, a full digital platforms team, an analytics team – we have nine SBUs supporting the markets now.

Mike had put a lot of the digital stuff in place, and I had the relative easy job of finishing what he’d started. For evidence of just how good Mike is, you only have to look at what Mike has done with PHD globally. He is a fantastic operator.

How do you feel Cheuk Chiang will approach the role differently to you?

That’s hard to answer. I’d have to explain why we put him in the role. Chew’s energy and his will to win – but not at all costs, his understanding of client service mentality, his value of a strong ecosystem and operational manifesto, but most importantly, because he’s an all-round decent human being who does what’s right. Our senior team will naturally gravitate towards that, and he’ll be a great role model.

He hasn’t got big shoes to fill. He’ll be a more tolerant CEO than I was. He has patience. But the flipside is, he’s impatient for growth.

Cheuk moved back to Melbourne for family reasons a year ago. How do you think the move back to Singapore will affect him?

Emma [Cheuk Chiang’s wife] and the kids are extremely close to our family. When Darryl [Sim, OMG’s global chairman and CEO] called me about the global job, the first person I called after my wife, was Emma. I asked her if she’d be ok with moving to Singapore, and I said that this would mean more time away, but please let Chew take this opportunity. She understands what it means and (I hope) she’s fine with it. She’s a genuine sweetheart and a massive support for Chewy.

Tell us about the hire of Susana Tsui as APAC CEO of PHD.

In hiring people in the past, I’ve been let down more times than I’ve succeeded, and I thought we were going to struggle to find the right person to replace Chewy. Very early this year, I started to look around for people to replace him. I saw six or seven people I thought would be right for the job, and they were all fantastic. But we were very lucky to get Susana. I really wasn’t sure that with the level of stardom she had at WPP she’d be interested in jumping to another behemoth like Omnicom. And there’s no way WPP would’ve wanted to lose her. She’s Chinese, she’s a star at Ogilvy, she’s got a terrific reputation is a potential CEO of the future. Susana is a wonderfully gifted individual. But it was painless to persuade her to take the job. I owe a big thank you to Paul Heath [Ogilvy’s APAC boss]. He’s been a gent about it and she leaves with his blessing.  I believe he knew that Susana wanted a new challenge.

How do you think she’ll work out with Cheuk?

When I introduced Chew to Susana, what was palpable was that they are both hungry winners. They want to do the best work, and they both understand that digital is at the heart of everything we do today. They both agree on the vision of targeting the one and not the thousand. Susana, Steve [Blakeman, OMD’s APAC CEO] and Chew will do great things together as brand leaders.

What’s been your biggest mistake?

Honestly, I’ve made so many I couldn’t possibly pick one. I’ve made errors of judgement in hiring senior people, in pitches, in our direction, our vision and on timing. I’m not frightened of making decisions that could fail. My approach has been, never be afraid to fail and learn.

Your proudest achievement?

You get emotional when you think of the things you’re proud of. It’s unfair on people internally to say where I feel we’ve done best, but it would be remiss of me not to mention India. I’ve loved every minute of India’s success. They’re a team I feel personally close to; I like them socially and professionally. China is much the same.

I’m also proud of the things we’ve done in Australia and New Zealand, where the management teams are quite simply awesome. I’m proud of our APAC management team in Singapore, and I’m particularly proud of Chew. I can’t take anything away from what Steve [Blakeman] is doing. He is a great guy doing a great job. For five years in a row OMD has been rated the best media agency in the region by Campaign.

What’s been the most frustrating thing about working in Asia?

The travel. The distance people have to cover is debilitating. There’s nothing glamorous about travel, and there are a lot of red eye flights in this region. In meetings, you cannot be at best at your best because of a lack of sleep. I travel vast distances and get off at the other end to a 250+ email chain, knowing that I will have another 250 to deal with the next day if I don’t tackle them.

Steve Blakeman told me a few weeks back – and I don’t think he was joking – that conference calls should be banned. What irritates you most about working life?

Email. We are prisoners to the electronic world, but we are prisoners by design. We are just too reliant on it. It’s a butt-covering tool. If we banned anything, it should be email. You should video call or simply call someone if you want to ‘talk to them’ in person. There is nothing as useful as human conversation.

Who do you admire the most in the region?

A complete list would be as long as this conversation. The competition is run by bright guys who make life very difficult for us. We have some very gifted clients, such as McDonald’s, Visa, Apple and Unilever to name just a few. I’ve walked out of meetings with the likes of Facebook and Google thinking I’m a stupid luddite who doesn’t deserve a place in the industry.

But I have to say that James Thompson at Diageo is somebody who’s taken my breath away in what he’s achieved in the last two years – his understanding of where the industry is headed and how he himself has acted in doing right by the consumer regardless of which of his agencies he uses.

What’s the one thing you feel has changed most about media in Asia in the last six years?

The ‘challenge mentality’ has got better. People are not just functional, they should not just do “what they are told” and follow a brief. The best work we’re seeing in Asia now is a result of embracing being a challenger. And that’s your duty in this business. You have to interrogate and challenge a brief to get the right strategy.

Any final thoughts?

Just one. I’m sad to be leaving. It’ll be an extremely sad day for me when I say goodbye to everyone on 19 July. I’ve loved every minute of the last six years. My colleagues, our clients, our offices. I may even miss the travel!

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