The subtle art of media negotiation in Asia

Stuart ClarkStuart Clark is MD of Havas Media International APAC. He has spent the last six years of a decade-long stint with the company in the rough and tumble of international media in Asia.

What has he learned about media trading in Asia in that time? He tells Mumbrella’s Asia editor Robin Hicks about how trading is different in Asia compared to the UK, the secret to getting what you want from a media owner and what makes a great negotiator.

You come from the UK, where media buyers tend to yell and curse at media owners, which is an accepted part of media negotiations. I’m not saying you’re from that mould, but have you had to adapt how you negotiate in the Asian context?

Yes definitely. It’s a completely different approach in this region. First and foremost, you have to manage the concept of face. You just can’t be as straightforward or aggressive as you would be in the UK.

But even in the shouty days in London, which now have tempered (so I’m told) you were always looking for a win-win situation. You enter any negotiation in any country looking to ensure that both parties get what they want.

Here, it’s about the long game. You are managing relationships you need to work in the long run. Once you’ve established trust with a media owner, then you can get the best rates and the best value for the client.

You rarely, if ever, see people shouting on the phone in Asia. TV buying in the UK used to be like a stock market trading floor. But you have to adapt here, not just in how you deal with media owners, but in how you engage with clients and staff.

What’s the secret to getting what you want from a media owner?

It varies by market. Take Singapore. There are two very strong media vendors who are effectively a duopoly. This creates a distinct dynamic between the buyer and seller, where the seller has the power. In other markets, you can play media owners off each other more easily.

That said, as an agency we try to be as collaborative as possible with media owners. Some media agencies are still focused on being the hundred pound gorilla in the room. We’re focused on understanding the individual needs of the client and working with media owners to get what both parties want.

Who’s the best media negotiator you’ve ever known and why?

Marc Mendoza

Marc Mendoza: “bruiser”

Marc Mendoza, who’s now chairman of Havas Media UK [Mendoza has been with Havas for 26 years, 10 as CEO, seven as MD].

Marc is one of those classic British TV buyers who’s spent much of his working life shouting down the phone.

What makes Marc a great negotiator is that he is a combination of two different disciplines in one individual. He knows advertising and he knows media trading.

Marc has a reputation for being a bit of a bruiser. But he is always fair and honest. Yes, he’s aggressive. But he’s got integrity. You always know where you stand. You can trust him. Media owners and clients like him because he is not like so many people in media, who frankly are not as transparent as they should be.

Havas Media is by no means the biggest media buyer in Asia – and size matters. How do you approach media negotiations differently as a smaller player?

This is a question we get asked a lot by clients. First of all, we’re not that small. We’re relatively small compared to some of the others.

Our point of view on that is that we use our relatively small size to be more agile and flexible. Which is important in media because the pace of change is so fast. You can’t be a lumbering giant. You have to adapt to market conditions and go where the consumer is going.

The buying process, which is still a big part of our business, is changing from a scale conversation to one about data, digitisation and programmatic trading. It’s more about intelligence and technology. Not about how many dollars you have running through your agency.

Is the art of negotiation lost now that computers are doing what many media people use to do?

No, but things have changed. There’s been a shift in the profile of media agency people compared to 10 or 15 years ago. We’re bringing in people with backgrounds in engineering and mathematics. There are more scientific thinkers. Media people used to be more sales orientated, more your typical advertising type. With the new breed comes a change in the culture of the agency and how it engages with media owners. But I don’t see the end for the need for good personal relationships between media agency and media owner.

Programmatic buying does not, yet, represent enough of the business to change that status quo. One day it will, but that’s a few years away. And even then, there’ll still be the need for people to manage the technology and relationships between the different parties involved.

How do media negotiations in Asia vary market to market?

They tend to conform to the cultural norms in each market. Indians love to have verbal arguments, to test bargaining expertise. In China, it’s typically about managing the relationship and establishing a sense of trust before you do a deal. As a westerner, you need to learn how to adapt to each scenario, which takes many years of practice.

How important is ‘face’ in media negotiation?

Extremely. And it’s very difficult to deal with. As a media agency, you need to go through a process and a protocol to get what you want. After the first conversation you might get a negative response. But that might turn out to be a stepping stone to someone else who can get you what you want.

Dealing with face in negotiations is really about understanding the hierarchies within a company, and what your contact needs to sell in to their bosses. Working in Singapore is all about diplomacy. You need to understand the protocols that make your proposals acceptable to the other side.

Face is not important to me at all as an individual. But I realise that it is to other people, and have had to adapt accordingly.

What advice would you give to young media negotiators starting out in the business?

What attracts young people to media now is the planning and strategy – not the buying. It was the opposite for me when I started out. I loved the trading side of media.

There’s a lot of satisfaction you can get from buying, although in agencies strategy and planning tend to get more respect. But ultimately, buying is central of what we offer. It’s at the heart of our service. It should be treated it as a core skill, and be nurtured.

Going into a negotiation, the most important thing is to enjoy it. It should be fun.

It’s also about understanding very clearly who you’re dealing with. Preparation is everything. The best buyers are also great planners. They know the market. They know everything about a media owner’s inventory, what is available, and the price they should pay for it. Most importantly, they need to understand the media owner’s motivations and what drives them as a company and as individuals.


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